The Colors and Textures of Tree Bark Will Enhance Your Winter Garden

The texture of tree bark becomes an important element in winter when the shedding of leaves exposes trunks and branches. The variety of colors and textures is fascinating. The bark’s texture may change as the tree matures. The bark of a black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), for instance, is quite smooth when young, becoming deeply furrowed as it ages. Conversely, a paperbark maple (Acer griseum) will exhibit its flaking, exfoliating characteristics when very young. One of our favorites in the South is crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) with bark that peels to reveal smooth pinkish or grayish bark beneath. Some trees have colored bark, like the famous white bark of the canoe or paper birch (Betula papyrifera), or the dark red stems of a red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea). Imagine the beauty of a hedge or mass of red-osier dogwood surrounded by snow! Site a tree, such as a river birch (Betula nigra) with its flaking bark, where you can easily admire it as you pass it on a walkway or look out a window.

Maple Bark

Acer buergerianum, trident maple—smooth gray bark, fissures and splits with age

Acer buergerianum, trident mapleAcer buergerianum

Acer davidii, David maple--handsome pale grey bark with green striping.  Also known as stripebark or snakebark maple

Acer davidiiAcer davidii

Acer griseum, paperbark maple—exfoliating reddish bark, even on young trees

Acer griseum barkAcer griseum bark

Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood' Japanese maple, interesting dappled grey effect

Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood'Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood'

Acer palmatum ‘Nishiki gawa,’ Japanese pinebark maple--has rough-textured bark resembling pine bark. A good choice for a small specimen tree or bonsai.

Acer palmatum 'Nishiki gawa'Acer palmatum 'Nishiki gawa'

Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku,’ coral bark Japanese maple—coral color on young shoots

Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku'Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku'

Acer saccharum, sugar maple—a mature sugar maple is known for its glorious fall color, but the bark on a mature tree is interesting, too.  It develops vertical furrows with age and plates of bark that lift up at the edges giving it a shaggy appearance.

Acer saccharum barkAcer saccharum bark

Acer triflorum, three-flowered maple—flaky, gold and brown bark gives this tree excellent ornamental value in winter

Acer triflorum barkAcer triflorum bark

Aesculus californica, California buckeye—smooth silver-gray

Aesculus hippocastanum, common horsechestnut—gray to brown, exfoliates with age

Amelanchier arborea, serviceberry—smooth and grey when young, becoming furrowed with age

Arbutus menziesii, Pacific madrone—grayish brown and splits into longitudinal fissures

Birch Bark

Betula lenta, sweet birch or cherry birch—shiny dark reddish-black with prominent horizontal lenticels and a distinctive wintergreen scent when crushed

Betula lentaBetula lenta

Betula nigra, river birch—peeling, exfoliating tree bark

Betula nigra, river birchBetula nigra

Betula papyrifera, paper birch—famous white bark that peels in thin horizontal strips revealing reddish inner bark. Indians used to make canoes and shelter. Best in Northern zones.

Betula papyrifera barkBetula papyrifera bark

Betula pendula, European weeping birch—whitish bark when young, becoming mostly dark with age

Carpinus betulus, European hornbeam-- smooth, bluish gray; hard, muscular fluted trunk

Carpinus betulusCarpinus betulus

Carya ovata, shagbark hickory--long, straplike sheets of bark dangle off mature trees giving them their characteristic shagginess

Carya ovata barkCarya ovata

Cercidiphyllum japonicum, katsuratree—the bark becomes shaggy with age on a tree that is beautiful in all seasons. Outstanding specimen tree.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum barkCercidiphyllum japonicum bark

Cercis canadensis, Eastern redbud—dark, blackish bark stands out in winter, good foil for the pink buds which pop out directly from the branches. Younger bark looks much smoother and develops this sort of criss-cross pattern with age.

Cercis canadensis, redbudCercis canadensis

Chionanthus retusus, Chinese fringetree--multiple trunks develop with bark in shades of gray, brown and tan may be furrowed or exhibit exfoliating characteristics.

Chionanthus retususChionanthus retusus

Cladrastis kentukea, American yellowwood--smooth gray bark with lighter horizontal patches giving a striped effect. Similar to American beech.

Cladrastis kentukea, American yellowwoodCladrastis kentukea

Dogwood Bark

Cornus alba, Tatarian dogwood—red twigs in winter

Cornus florida, flowering dogwood—rough, gray tree bark in small blocks, a good identification feature

Cornus florida, flowering dogwood barkCornus florida

Cornus kousa, Kousa dogwood--smooth gray bark exfoliates to show tan patches, very different from Cornus florida

Cornus kousa barkCornus kousa

Cornus officinalis, Japanese Cornel dogwood—interesting showy bark with gray, brown and orangey patches

Cornus officinalis barkCornus officinalis

Cornus sericea, redosier dogwood—red twigs in winter. Cornus sericea ‘Lutea’, yellow twig dogwood—has yellow twigs in winter.

Cornus sericea barkCornus sericea

Cornus wilsoniana, Wilson's dogwood--unusual ghostly patchy white and gray bark. Would be very interesting to use for a white garden in the moonlight

Cornus wilsoniana barkCornus wilsoniana

Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, European filbert, “Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick”—bark is smooth, brown, but stems are fantastically twisted and corkscrewed making for good winter interest

Corylus avellana barkCorylus avellana

Crataegus marshallii, parsley hawthorn--a small native tree of the southeastern U.S. with patchy, scaly bark that is quite ornamental.

Crataegus marshallii, parsley hawthorn barkCrategus marshallii

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Plant of the Month

Cornus florida flowering dogwood in bloom

Cornus florida


Updated new USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map 2023.