Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
January, 2007
Regional Report

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The bark on sour cherry adds interest to the winter garden.

Appreciate Trees and Bark

Here in the Rocky Mountain and High Plains region, the winter landscape may seem bland at first glance. However, if you take a closer look, you'll find that many trees have interesting features even when they don't have leaves. The bark of many trees contrasts against the winter snow, and it's a good time of year to learn how to use bark characteristics in your landscape to add subtle or dramatic interest.

Though we often take bark for granted when trees are young, bark changes over time and come become more striking. A species may start out with thin, smooth bark that eventually becomes thick and flaky or changes in coloration as the tree matures. Interesting bark can come in many forms, including smooth, ridged, shiny, blocky, or exfoliating.

Bark Worth Noting
My favorite bark is that of the cherry tree (Prunus), especially species with lustrous, shiny bark with horizontal, grayish brown markings. The Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) is a shrub-like cherry with a shiny, reddish brown bark that peels over time. Even the fruiting cherries, including 'Montmorency', 'North Star', 'Stella', and 'Bing', have handsome, shiny bark that stands out against the snow.

Noted for its unique, structural, upright growth, Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) has very handsome bark that's characterized by rugged, dark brown, scaly ridges. This tree is underused is the landscape because many find it slow to start, but I highly recommend it.

The American plane tree or sycamore (Platanus sp.) is noted for its mottled bark with patches of grayish brown, which peels away to reveal the creamy inner bark. London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia) has even more interesting bark with creamy white, brown, and pistachio green mottling.

Perhaps the most prominent trees with ornamental bark are the birches. The paper bark birch (Betula papyrifera) is the most common. As this tree gets older, the outer white bark peels off in horizontal sheets to reveal a reddish brown bark beneath. Though the European white birch (Betula pendula) has been declining in our region due to drought and bronze birch borers, the very handsome bark is non-peeling and noted for its mottling of gray and black. River birch (Betula nigra), a good replacement for aspen trees, has peeling, buckskin-colored bark with mottling of reddish brown, beige, and dusky orange.

In the realm of shrubs, Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) is very different from the traditional shrub lilacs. The bark is a reddish brown that will turn grayish with age. It also has prominent horizontal markings similar to those found on cherry trees.

Multi-stemmed dogwoods come in brilliant red, such as 'Arctic Fire', or glowing yellow. They are very effective planted in groupings as they reveal their colorful bark when the foliage is gone. Plant them in front of a solid brick wall, a bank of evergreens, a fence, or another backdrop to help them stand out even more.

So as you plan additions to your landscape this year, consider trees and shrubs with interesting and noteworthy bark. They will add another dimension during the winter season.

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