Colourful Winter Bark
Colourful winter bark is a major plant feature that isn’t given the attention it deserves when selecting plants to grow in the garden.
When most leaves have fallen and the only colour in the garden is from evergreen shrubs and the odd early blooming bulb, I value colourful winter bark!
The Paperbark Maple
I should have planted more trees with good bark butin my previous garden but it was relatively small. In a small garden there is limited room for trees.
But I got constant pleasure from one tree that was only planted for its peeling bark. That was the paperbark maple Acer griseum.
This is rather slow growing but well worth the wait.
The paper-like copper coloured bark goes right up into the crown of the tree and underneath I had planted a carpet of squills [Scilla sibirica]. They spread and produced a carpet of rich blue every spring.
I raised this particular tree from seed sown in 1982 and persuaded my good friend and exceptional plantsman Roy Lancaster to plant it for me in April 1984.
Ghostly white stemmed Birch trees
Birch trees are renowned for good bark colour but some are far better than others. The Himalayan birch Betula utilis has many superb named forms and favourites of mine include ‘Jacquemontii’, ‘Doorenbos’ and ‘Grayswood’.
Birch are much faster growing and yet never really grow into large trees.
The snow-white bark is especially showy in winter and an ideal under-planting that works well amongst their shallow competing roots is winter flowering heathers.
Like the paperbark maple, these varieties have beautiful peeling bark but one birch in particular has positively shaggy looking bark as a winter feature.
This is the river birch Betula nigra and, as its name implies, prefers damp soils.
The form ‘Heritage’ is a good selection.
I took this image in the lovely garden of John Massey amongst the fascinating collection of good plants that he has in the West Midlands.
If you would like to see a great collection of birch trees to assist you in making a choice there is a fantastic collection on the edge of Dartmoor. I’ve blogged about my visit to this National Collection of birch trees here.
For drier soils and for a sunny site, eucalyptus is a good choice for colourful winter bark.
My favourite is one that is perfectly hardy and from the cooler south east of Australia and Tasmania.
It’s called ‘Snow Gum’ by most but I prefer the aboriginal name ‘Leaning Joe’! Invariably it is a tree that leans over at about 45 degrees and shows off its python-like multi-coloured bark.
When you see one, I defy you not to stroke this smooth beautiful bark since it is so tactile.
Even the much more widely available cider gum Eucalyptus gunnii has interesting peeling bark when mature but this grows into a very much bigger tree.
Another tree from a Mediterranean climate with rich showy bark is the West Coast strawberry tree called the Madrona [Arbutus menziesii].
Like the paperbark maple this too has rich coppery bark but, unlike the more common strawberry tree Arbutus unedo, this one needs a lime free acid soil.
Cherries are planted primarily for their showy spring blooms and perhaps good autumn leaf colour.
The Chinese species Prunus serrula has fabulously polished smooth bark that a French polisher would be proud of!
This tree has tiny white flowers in spring and fairly ordinary willow-like leaves in summer but that polished trunk is what you would plant it for.
Many shrubs have showy colourful bark in winter.
One that you wouldn’t want to tangle with is the ghostly white stemmed bramble called Rubus cockburnianus.
This suckering hardy shrub is armed with fierce thorns and is a useful deterrent to plant to deter intruders and corner cutters!
Bamboos have many fine stemmed forms and the black stemmed Phyllostachys nigra is justifiably popular.
But the jet black cane colour can be lost in winter.
The yellow stemmed varieties such as Phyllostachys vivax aureocaulis really stand out!
Plant these where they will catch the weak winter sun to look at their best.
There are many other good plants that come into their own with colourful winter bark in winter so if your garden looks a bit dull at the moment and you have the space, I suggest you look seriously at what a plant can offer you in winter as well as at other times of the year.
I’ve written about beautifully coloured stem dogwoods that look so good in winter too. Read about it here.
You might be interested to read about trees that look great in autumn here.