In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
October, 2005
Regional Report

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The bark of the flaxleaf paperbark reminds me of a Georgia O'Keefe painting.

Trees With Showy Bark

Landscape plants are selected for many reasons. Some are chosen for their blossoms, some for their leaves, and others for their watering requirements. However, there is another factor to take into consideration when choosing a shrub or tree for your garden: the character of the bark.

The magnificent cork oak (Quercus suber) is a perfect example. It's grown for its thick bark, which is harvested and used to make corks for wine bottles. Thankfully, the trees survive the process because the bark is only partially stripped away from the trunk at any one time.

Vibrant Colors
There are other landscape plants that are treasured for their bark, including the coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku'). The bark on this tree is a brilliant red. During the dreary winter months when not much is happening in the garden, a coral bark maple takes front stage. The new growth is the most colorful, so you can encourage new branches by cutting it almost to the ground every two or three years.

Interesting Textures
Some varieties of eucalyptus trees also have very interesting bark, although some would say they are too messy. Every year, the bark on the sugar gum tree (Eucalyptus cladocalyx) peels away in long strips to reveal the smooth, creamy trunk beneath. The long leaf pine (Pinus palustrus) has scaly bark that peels off in large, flat shingles.

The redwood tree (Sequoia sempervirens) has a fibrous bark that comes away in long threadlike strips. Squirrels will often strip the bark on redwood trees to use as nesting material. Birch trees (Betula) have a papery bark that children love to peel. The white alder (Alnus rhombifolia) develops eerie-looking, dark gray eyes on the smooth, pale bark as the trees mature.

One of my favorite trees for its bark is the flaxleaf paperbark (Melaleuca linariifolia). One of these trees lives in the parking lot of my marina, and in the early spring the crown is covered with a cloud of small, white flowers. The magnificent, gnarled bark reminds me of a painting by artist Georgia O'Keefe.

Some trees have unique bark features that may or may not appeal. The sharp spines on the honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) can grow as long as 3 inches, while the comical thorns on the Hercules-club tree (Aralia spinosa) resemble large, fat warts.

The next time you select a new plant for your garden, remember to notice the bark.


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