Trees With Interesting Bark – Using Exfoliating Bark On Trees For Seasonal Interest

By: Heather Rhoades

In many parts of the country the cold weather brings with it a bare landscape. Just because the garden is dead or dormant though, does not mean that we cannot enjoy the visible parts of our plants. In particular, planting exfoliating bark trees can provide year-round seasonal interest. Trees with exfoliated bark are magnificent in the spring and summer and then become breathtaking sculptures out in the garden in the fall and winter. Using tree bark in winter to improve your winter views is a way to keep your garden lovely year-round.

What are Exfoliating Bark Trees?

Exfoliating bark trees are trees whose bark naturally peels away from the trunk. Some trees with exfoliated bark have exfoliating bark as soon as they grow. Other trees may not develop their exfoliating bark until they have reached full maturity after many years.

Trees with Interesting, Exfoliating Bark

Some exfoliating trees include:

  • Amur Chokecherry
  • Chinese Dogwood
  • Common Bald Cypress
  • Cornelian Cherry
  • Crepe Myrtle
  • Drake Elm
  • Eastern Arborvitae
  • Eastern Red Cedar
  • Japanese Stewartia
  • Lacebark Elm
  • Lacebark Pine
  • Paper Birch
  • Paperbark Maple
  • Paper Mulberry
  • Persian Parrotia
  • Red Maple
  • River Birch
  • Shagbark Hickory
  • Silver Maple
  • Sitka Spruce
  • White Birch
  • Wax Myrtles
  • Yellow Birch
  • Yellow Buckeye

Why Do Trees Have Exfoliating Bark?

While exfoliating tree bark in winter is lovely, most people are fairly certain that these trees did not develop this unique feature simply because humans liked it. There is actually an environmental advantage for trees with exfoliated bark. The theory goes that trees that shed their bark are better able to rid themselves of pests like scale and aphids, as well as harmful fungus and bacteria. It also helps reduce the amount of lichen and moss that grows on the tree.

Whatever the reason that some trees have for shedding their bark, we can still enjoy the interesting patterns and designs that exfoliating bark trees have to offer in the winter.

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The Winter Garden – beautiful bark

'Lions head' maple is best known for its tufty foliage reminiscent of a lions mane but the smooth olive green bark is equally beautiful

As leaves fall from the trees it is tempting to consider them merely naked statues in the landscape until they are clothed once again in foliage. It is also tempting to stay inside by the fire rather than explore the garden! Yet the texture and color of bark and stems can add significant interest to the landscape at this time of year. Careful placement will allow you to enjoy them from your armchair but can also be good motivation to find your boots and scarf to take a closer look. It’s amazing how even a brief stroll around the garden can lift the spirits.

Here are some of my favorite trees and shrubs that exhibit interesting bark for both the landscape and containers.

Look for a multi-trunked river birch specimen to make the most of the striking bark

River birch (Betula nigra), often multi stemmed, has shaggy bark which peels off in papery curls, revealing the salmon beneath.'Heritage' is one of the best full size cultivars. Although it does not need wet soil it copes well with it, making it a good choice for my garden! We have planted a group of three in a low spot which fills with water every winter. For smaller gardens the cultivar ‘Little Fox’ (syn. ‘Little King’) may be a better option, growing to 12-15’ rather than towering to 40’ like the species. Full sun or light shade. Hardy in zones 4-9

The muted colors of Stewartia resemble an elegant patchwork quilt

The vivid lightning bolt patterns in shades of grey, orange and red sets the exfoliating bark of Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) apart. This special tree has many virtues – it is relatively pest and disease free, has exquisite white camellia-like blossoms in mid-summer when few other trees are in flower, and greets autumn with shades of red and purple. A gorgeous specimen tree growing to 40’ tall and 20’ wide. Does best with some afternoon shade. Zones 5-8

Everyone who has a paperbark maple quickly declares it a favorite

A recent addition to our garden has been the paperbark maple (Acer griseum). The striking cinnamon colored peeling bark is a standout in the winter landscape, especially emerging from a blanket of snow. At just 18’ tall and 15’ wide it is suitable for smaller landscapes where its fresh green foliage can be enjoyed in spring and summer before turning to vivid sunset shades in fall. It copes well with sandy or clay soil, full sun or dappled shade and is hardy in zones 4-8.

As the last few leaves fall to the ground the colorful stems of 'Coppertina' ninebark become visible

I love ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius cultivars) almost as much as our deer! With foliage in shades of green, gold, copper or deep burgundy and sizes ranging from 4’ to 10’ I can enjoy many of these deciduous shrubs in containers or the border.

The larger cultivars such as ‘Diablo’ and ‘Coppertina’ can be left to grow freely or cut down and thinned out to keep to a smaller size. They are remarkably adaptable, coping well with moist conditions in either full sun or partial shade. Clusters of white spring flowers are followed by glossy red berries and fall color ranges from rich mahogany (‘Diablo’ and ‘Little Devil’) to orange (Dart’s Gold). There are therefore plenty of reasons to use them in your garden, but they have another great attribute – the outer brown bark of these multi-trunked shrubs peels away to reveal strips of creamy white beneath.

Include the compact ‘Little Devil’ in a container year round and you can enjoy these colorful branches throughout the winter. In the landscape larger specimens can be best appreciated if they are fronted by herbaceous perennials so that their winter glory is revealed when the perennials die down. Zones 3-8

Bright green bark with corky bumps! The 'Arakawa' Japanese maple has four season interest

Japanese maple s are well known for their fall color but many also have striking bark, the coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’) being perhaps the best known. Two others I enjoy in my own garden are the ‘Lions head’ maple (Acer shishigashira) with its smooth olive green bark, so beautiful against the yellow and orange fall foliage and a welcome addition to my woodland garden. I also have ‘Arakawa’ (Acer palmatum ‘Arakawa’) which means ’rough bark’ – an unusual corky appearance which presents a new texture.

Despite deer and flooding our weeping willow is thriving and brings great color to the winter landscape

The first tree I planted in this garden was a golden niobe willow (Salix alba 'Tristis'). I was still coming to terms with the unwelcome surprise that our new garden was a 5 acre lake in winter and wondering how on earth I could realize my dream of a beautiful garden. Sheer stubbornness dictated that this was going to be a case of ‘right plant, right place’ so I looked for a tree that could cope with several inches of standing water for most of the winter. Not only that but it had to deal with saturated soil for most of spring before it turned into concrete each summer. Amazingly this weeping willow has come through and is doing great. Actually it is somewhat ‘poodled’ thanks to our deer who eat everything they can reach giving it a ridiculous haircut that looks like a monks tonsure. If you can get over the somewhat truncated ‘weeping’ part then you will appreciate the bright yellow stems and bark in the winter which contrast well against the dark evergreen backdrop.

Others trees and shrubs with great bark

Shrub dogwoods (red, yellow or multi-colored stems)

‘Fine Line’ buckthorn (brown with tiny white spots)

Snake bark maple (green with snakeskin markings)

Paperbark cherry (glossy mahogany)

What trees and shrubs do you have in your garden with interesting bark and branches?

My Favorite Small Trees with Great Bark For Winter Interest

Trees with attractive bark add so much to the winter garden. If a tree can pull its weight in the dead of winter, it has a lot going for it and that alone can be plenty of reason to plant it. But the plants I'm showcasing below are more than a one-season-winter-wonder. In addition to a strong showing in other seasons by providing bloom, fall color, or drought tolerance (see individual notes below), I've selected these for their suitability for smaller gardens by virtue of their dwarf stature or relatively slow growth.

Acer griseum (Zone 5 to 8) is a small- to medium-sized deciduous tree, prized for its bark, attractive summertime foliage, and red fall color. The exfoliating copper-colored bark of the paperbark maple is a wintertime delight as it positively glows when backlit on a crisp winter's day.

Acer circinatum 'Pacific Fire' (Zone 5 to 9) is a cultivated variety of our Pacific Northwest native vine maple especially prized for its vivid red stems in winter, vibrant green foliage in summer, and excellent fall color.

Arctostaphylos 'Austin Griffith'(Zone 7 to 9) is a tough and adaptable selection of the Pacific Northwest native manzanita that's prized for its smooth, sinewy, chocolate-colored bark, early spring flowers, and hearty constitution. An outstanding evergreen shrub or small tree, it requires full sun and asks for little to no supplemental water once established.

Betula nigra 'Little King' Fox Valley™(Zone 4 to 9) is a dwarf river birch that is still surprisingly uncommon in Pacific Northwest gardens despite its many positive qualities. Chief among them is its fantastic winter bark which unfurls in papery thin sheets in salmon and tan tones. This, coupled with its dwarf growth habit, disease resistance, and drought tolerance make for a pretty darn desirable package.

Lagerstroemia x 'Zuni' (Zone 6 to 10), a compact crape myrtle with an upright, vase-shaped growth habit, is well-suited to city gardens. Happy in your hottest garden spot, it will soak up the sun and heat and thank you for it with generous blooms in mid to late summer and good fall color. It's quite drought tolerant but grows best with some supplemental summer water.

Stewartia monadelpha (Zone 6 to 8) is a wonderful all-season tree for the woodland garden. Its close cousin, the Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia), is a top-notch tree deserving of its widespread adoration, but this stewartia species is another winner and worthy of being more widely grown. It contributes in other seasons as well with delicate, white camellia-like summer blooms, and reliably good, red fall color. It's a slow grower, so get one as large as you can find or afford.

The gallery below has even more photos of the trees above. But I've assembled some other photos from my vast archives that showcase other beauties that I've admired. I've identified and commented on most of them, but I don't have full details to offer on them all. But hey, they're still good-looking trees, right?

Japanese Flowering Cherry


The Japanese flowering cherry has glossy bark that contrasts the winter landscape.

Blooming as early as April, the Japanese flowering cherry (Prunus serrulata) is often considered a spring sentinel. The single or double flowers range from white to deep pink fragrance is an added bonus. 'Kwanson' exhibits a striking orange to bronze foliage color in fall. Once the foliage has fallen, this tree glows with its magnificent bark that dazzles the winter landscape. The bark exfoliates to reveal glossy patches in shades of red, brown and mahogany, and the corky horizontal lenticels are genuinely attractive on most cherries. Most people prefer cultivars that get only 20 to 25 feet tall, while the straight species gets to be 50 to 75 feet considered to be a fast to medium grower. Hardy to USDA Zone 5.

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