Trees worth their Bark

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Trees worth their Bark

I still remember when my nephew was a toddler and he learned to say “Sycamore” for the first time, as we pointed to the trees that dominate the view from the picture window at my mother’s house.

Fourteen years later, I still look forward to seeing these same sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), growing in a floodplain in Rockville, Maryland, especially in winter when their white bark stands out against bright blue skies.

sycamores in December in Maryland

Although I don’t grow sycamores in my own garden, they need lots of space, I am drawn to trees that display ornamental bark as part of their repertoire.

Another large native with colorful bark that shines in winter is riverbirch, Betula nigra ‘Heritage,’  Zone 4 to 9. Selected for its vigor and heat tolerance, the peeling bark reveals salmon and white as a young tree, turning more brown and red as it matures.  The bark of ‘Dura-Heat’ begins to exfoliate as a young tree, exposing white and salmon tones.

Betula nigra 'Dura Heat' close up of bark

River birch should not be sited next to the foundation as they will grow to heights of 40 to 70’ tall, especially when grown in moist soils.   Last December on a visit to the US Botanic Garden, I was charmed by Betula nigra ‘Little King,’ which displays handsome bark but only grows to 10’ high and 12’ wide, making it ideal for small gardens or hedging.  

Stewartia monadelpha bark at Polly Hill Arboretum


Truly an elegant tree, Stewartia pseudocamellia, Japanese stewartia, Zone 5 to 8,  reaches 20 to 40’ at maturity.  Its  white flowers in summer, dark green foliage, turning shades of orange, red and burgundy in autumn, and, its ornamental  bark with patches of gray, white and red, all add up to a four season beauty.

Stewartia pseudocamellia in January 2012

Considered more heat tolerant, is tall stewartia, Stewartia monadelpha, growing in Zone 6 to 8.  It offers striking cinnamon bark, small white summer flowers and deep red leaves in fall.*

Stewartia pseudocamellia close up of flowers
Stewartia pseudocamellia detail of fall foliage

A few years ago, I was given a variety of Japanese maple, Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’  with yellow to orange bark  that glows in the winter landscape.

Acer palmatum 'Bihou'

The classic palmate leaves turn yellow in the fall and new grow is edged in red.  Hardy in Zone 6 to 9, it grows 15 to 20’ tall. Another Japanese maple with colorful winter bark is the coral bark,  Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku.’  In my garden I have it paired with a smoke tree, a combination that pleases, no matter what the season.  Paperbark maple, Acer griseum is also a standout in winter with glistening cinnamon bark.  Hardy from Zone 4 to 8, in certain climates it exhibits brilliant red leaves in autumn.  Reaching heights of 20 to 30’ high, it makes a lovely specimen.  

When I am asked to recommend a medium to large shade tree for a specimen or street tree, lacebark elm is on the top of my list.  Its best feature is its ornamental bark, a patchwork of gray, green, orange and brown.  Other reasons to grow this tree include its rounded habit, fine textured foliage and disease resistance.  

Crataegus viridis 'Winter King' street tree

The hawthorn, Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’  is equally happy as a street tree or where a small ornamental tree is needed.  Growing 20 to 25’ tall, it offers striking red fruits, beginning in fall and persisting into winter when the bark takes center stage,  peeling to expose shades of gray, green, orange and brown. 

Crataegus viridis 'Winter King' closeup of bark

*The Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha’s Vineyard has a large collection of Stewartia trees.  For more information visit