Trees with mottled bark

Manzanita’s curious red bark

I had arrived at Leonards Ridge on the Uncompahgre Plateau, a shelf of rock at the top of a cliff, chosen for its likelihood of a scenic vista to the east. I set up my tent and was looking for the perfect shot at sunset when I noticed the red bark and bright foliage of a manzanita.

The conspicuously red bark of greenleaf manzanita warns insects of bitter taste and poisons. Photo by Jeff Mitton.

I had come to appreciate the beauty of manzanitas when I took a postdoctoral year at the University of California at Davis and spent considerable recreational time in both coastal and foothill parks. In chaparral environments, manzanitas grow so densely that they form shrub thickets. The mature bark of manzanitas peels naturally, leaving a deep red surface as smooth as marble. Approximately 40 species of manzanitas grow in California and there is a bewildering diversity of subspecies and hybrids.

Colorado has just one species of manzanita, Arctostaphylos patula, or greenleaf manzanita, which is found from the western slope of Colorado to the Coastal Range in California and from Baja to the state of Washington. Its elevational range is from 1,500 to 12,000 feet. A close relative, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, or kinnikinnick, has an even broader range, being native to all of the northern continents. These two species hybridize wherever they both occur.

Greenleaf manzanita is an evergreen shrub that grows between three and six feet tall. In some populations, but not all, it produces tubers, which allow it to spread clonally.

The deep red bark is a thing of beauty but it raises questions as well, for it is rare outside the manzanitas and their ancestors, madrone trees and shrubs in the genus Arbutus. The red color comes from a variety of compounds, but principally tannins, that produce both bitter taste and rich color. My hunch is that the beautiful bark of manzanitas is aposematic or warning coloration, advertising the bitter and poisonous compounds concentrated in the bark. Herbivores that survived the experience would immediately learn and long remember that red bark tastes bad and is poisonous.

The mature bark naturally peels away in thin sheets, leaving very smooth bark. By peeling each year, Manzanita jettisons any fungi, parasites, lichens and mosses that have managed to adhere. But in addition, glandular secretions make bark remarkably slippery, which is an effective defense against crawling insects.

As part of his PhD thesis research, Scott Ferrenberg tested whether smooth bark might deter attacks by mountain pine beetles. You may have noticed that some limber pines have rough bark, some have smooth bark, and some have patches of smooth and rough. He took live and healthy mountain pine beetles from beetle traps and placed them on live limber pines. Each beetle got two opportunities on the same tree, one trial on rough bark and one on smooth bark. The results could not have been clearer—beetles explored on rough bark for five minutes, when that trial was ended. But when placed on smooth bark, virtually all of them fell off in less than 30 seconds. Smooth, slippery bark is inaccessible for some insect herbivores.

The British Ecological Society awarded Scott the Haldane Prize for his experimental design, the clarity of the results and their broad implications. The results would certainly help understand why other trees, such as beeches and manzanitas, have smooth bark. Scott received his Ph.D. in 2014 and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Biological Science Center in Moab, UT.

Greenleaf manzanita grows in communities that burn frequently: with ponderosa pine and Gambel oak in Colorado and in California chaparral. Consequently, manzanita’s sprouting and seed germination are adapted to fire. It has a basal burl, usually buried, which sprouts after the fire. But in addition, seeds of greenleaf manzanita can remain dormant in the soil for centuries, waiting for a fire to pass followed by the cold of winter before germinating.

Though it looks exotic, Pacific madrone — a beautiful broadleaf evergreen tree with a captivating and distinctive presence that transforms with the seasons — is endemic to the Pacific coast. Its exquisite attributes — fragrant flower clusters, brilliant berries, glossy leaves, twisting branches, rounded crown, and rich cinnamon-red bark that peels from a satin-smooth trunk — please all of our senses. And for the wild ones attracted to this unique gem, its ecological gifts never disappoint.

Madrona (after madroño, the Spanish name for a Mediterranean “strawberry tree”) is the name admirers in Washington give this member of the Ericaceae (heath) family, while those in California and Oregon call it madrone or Pacific madrone. British Columbians simply use the Latin genus name, Arbutus. (The epitaph, menziesii, is named after the naturalist Archibald Menzies, a naturalist for the Vancouver Expedition that explored the Puget Sound region in 1792.)

How it grows
Pacific madrone is a large, long-lived tree that naturally occurs in a climate with mild, wet winters and dry summers, although rainfall varies substantially within its range, from the east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, southward through Washington and Oregon (west of the Cascades) to San Diego County. It is often found on rocky soils and other coarse soils that retain little moisture, including the dry foothills, wooded slopes and canyons of parts of California (at low to mid-elevations); within coastal redwood and mixed-evergreen forests; on dry ridge tops and slopes at low to mid-elevations along the west side of the Coast Ranges and in the Siskiyou Mountains; on warm, dry, lowland sites west of the Cascades (within Douglas-fir and western hemlock forests); and — furthest north — near sea level on rocky bluffs and low elevation slopes. Within mixed hardwood forests — that may or may not have an overstory of conifers — its tolerance to shade varies with age. While madrone seedlings do best in partial shade and young trees can handle quite a bit of shade, tolerance decreases as trees age and for those at the northern end of this species’ range. Older trees need good light to survive and often can be found growing at an angle, twistily and desperately reaching for the sunlight that helps ensure a long life.

Wildlife value
Wild ones are drawn like a magnet to madrone trees year round. In springtime, lovely creamy white, waxy, urn-shaped blossoms provide nectar for hummingbirds, native bees, and other pollinators.

Clusters of bright red berries — that ripen in autumn and may persist into early winter — feed many bird and mammal species, including American robins, varied thrushes, band-tailed pigeons, cedar waxwings, northern flickers, quail, raccoons, squirrels, mule deer, and bears.

Habitat is provided for a variety of insects, including echo blue and brown elfin butterfly caterpillars who nibble on leaves and in turn provide dinner for insectivorous birds. Shiny, leathery leaves generally remain on branches for two years, after which they turn from vivid green to burnt orange and settle to the ground where they provide a natural mulch that protects soil microorganisms and little ground-dwelling creatures. Lofty roosting and nesting habitat is also supplied, and live trees with rotting wood offer cavities for insects as well as birds that nest in trees, such as woodpeckers and chickadees. Dead and dying trees provide even more dead wood for cavity nesters and the silent decomposers that function as nature’s recyclers.

Unlike other trees, madrone’s fine roots have adapted to search deeply into rock fractures for stored water or “rock moisture,” making it an important plant for stabilizing slopes and cliffs and preventing landslides. In addition, it’s a valuable component of many vegetation types; for example, in mixed conifer forests like Washington’s Coast Range ecoregion (Douglas-fir/western hemlock/madrone), it provides a mid-canopy story, essential for the structural diversity of the forest.

It ought to be preserved for its own sake, for the wildlife that use it, for the ecosystems of which it’s an indelible part, and, needless to say, for those of us who revere its spectacular beauty.

Tragically, the species is currently in decline throughout most of its range, for several reasons. First, sprawling development in its native habitat has stolen many mature specimens. Though tough and drought tolerant (or more precisely, drought dependent), its roots are extremely sensitive to drainage changes, compaction, grade alteration, and other soil disturbance. Because madrone belongs and successfully grows in regional arid soil conditions that many trees cannot, landowners and developers ought to protect and save this tree at all costs.

Under natural conditions, madrone depends on intermittent fires that limit the conifer overstory (typically Douglas-fir trees). Older madrone trees can survive fire and will sprout quickly and profusely afterwards due to carbohydrate reserves within existing roots. In addition, their fruit produces many seeds, which sprout on exposed soil readily after fire. But when humans suppress and prevent natural fires, the prolonged absence of fire and consequential shade—especially on moister sites—may cause madrone trees to die.

Death or damage may be also caused by several pathogens, including a foliar fungus (Nattrassia mangiferae), commonly called “madrone canker,” that reproduces via spores and causes dieback, blackening of branches, and cankers that may spread to the trunk. A root rot, Heterobasidium annosum, can also cause serious damage. Unlike fire, “disease decreases starch accumulation in the root burl, so that declining trees are less able to resprout after the aboveground portion of the tree is killed by disease.” But prevention is possible: Susceptibility to disease is exacerbated by unnatural environmental stresses such as regular summer irrigation and the use of fungicides and fertilizers. Essentially, spores are carried by water, fungicides kill beneficial mycorrhizal fungi (symbiotic associations between the roots of most plants and fungi, which protect roots from pathogens), and studies suggest that increased soil nitrogen disrupts the mycorrhizal associations between beneficial fungi and tree roots, which in turn reduce the supply of micronutrients and water to trees, thereby increasing susceptibility to disease. Madrone trees host a large number of types of mycorrhizal fungi and have been called “a major hub of mycorrhizal fungal diversity and connectivity in mixed evergreen forests” that play a large role in forest regeneration by promoting resilience to disturbance below ground.

Madrone is also affected to a small extent by sudden oak death, a disease caused by a water-borne, fungus-like pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum, which arrived in the U.S. via live plant imports of exotic ornamentals to nurseries; it is increasingly spread by human actions, including climate disruption.

Try it at home
Despite all these threats, a madrone in the wild can live hundreds of years and may grow very large—over 100 feet tall. In cultivation they rarely exceed 50 feet after many decades. Young trees often grow fast (up to several feet per year), while older trees typically grow at a much slower pace. In the southern, drier and warmer part of its range it grows more slowly and stays smaller.

Supplemental water after establishment is highly detrimental: Madrone cannot tolerate slow drainage, standing water, or regular irrigation during summer, which makes it susceptible to disease (as do fertilizer applications). While it has a bad reputation for being difficult to establish and isn’t for the fussy gardener, knowing what this tree needs and cannot tolerate will help ensure success. In my experience, there are six essentials to successfully growing this tree:

1. Figure out if it historically occurred in your area. Though it’s not absolutely essential that this species likely grew in your immediate area 200+ years ago — especially since much change has occurred since then — because this tree can’t just be stuck in the ground anywhere, look to nearby natural areas to see if it might have naturally occurring relatives nearby in similar soil. In its northern range, it’s usually found growing on soils derived from glacial sands or till and gravels, while in the southern and middle parts it reportedly grows on soils derived from a variety of materials.

2. Be sure your site has the right conditions: Fast-draining, slightly acidic soil (pH a little less than 7), noncompacted soil, and a bright location with at least a half day of sun in northerly locations. However, seedlings need partial shade to establish, so if you have mostly sun, shield them from hot afternoon rays until well established. Site plants on a slope or area that’s elevated (even slightly) above the surrounding area to facilitate drainage. In my yard I tried twice to grow one-foot-tall saplings in the lowest part of my yard with sad results, despite digging in extra small rocks and gravel to increase drainage. My third attempt, which I grew myself from seed, I planted atop a short, south-facing slope, again with extra rocks and gravel. I believe that the increased drainage was what was needed; however, the seedling was also very small — only three inches tall! — so that also may have helped. Note: If you live in a very warm, dry area (such as parts of California) be sure to plant this tree on a north-facing slope, rather than in hot, direct sunlight.

3. Start with very small saplings, no more than a foot tall, as older trees do not transplant well. Once they “take,” however, young trees grow quite fast (in my yard, over a foot a year).

4. Plant saplings in the fall, just as winter rains begin, since they establish best when they can establish roots first, then put on aboveground biomass. You can plant them in the spring, but you’ll end up worrying about how much or how often to water; during the moist days of autumn you can just let nature decide. Do not dig large amounts of organic matter into the soil that could inhibit the moisture-seeking roots from penetrating to mineral soil, and do not add fertilizers that can disrupt the mycorrhizal associations between beneficial fungi and roots. Never apply fungicides.

5. Give them space. To allow them to get to their full and most beautiful form, plant them at least 20 feet apart and at least 30 feet away from tall trees, especially conifers that produce deep shade.

6. Irrigate sparingly, and preferably only during the first summer or two. During my little tree’s first spring and summer it was unusually warm and dry, and I noticed some wilting of leaves on especially warm days. I carefully (and nervously!) watered it with tepid tap water (or rain water I had collected) in the mornings around its base and outwards a few feet, keeping the leaves and stem completely dry. I did this only a couple of times a week when heat was predicted, and by the end of the summer it was in fine shape and had grown well over a foot in height. During the second summer I left it on its own, and when no wilting of leaves occurred it became clear that the little tree was self-sufficient. After another foot of growth was added, I was able to fully exhale.

Baby Madrone, just 4 months after planting as a 3-inch-tall sapling.

Grab a partner
It’s best to match madrones with other species that are compatible below ground—those that have similar needs and mycorrhizal associations and that would naturally occur together in nature (if you already have some non-natives that you want to keep, be sure not to grow any that need summer irrigation nearby). Which native “associated species” you choose depends on what part of the region you live in.

Madrone most commonly rubs shoulders with mixed-hardwood tree species that often have some conifer overstory (without completely shading them). A member of the Douglas-fir/tanoak forest, madrone makes up the secondary canopy, while Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) with tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) typically create an overstory. Less commonly, madrone mingles with coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) along the northern California and southern Oregon coast, and with western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana var. garryana), and Pacific ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa) throughout much of its range. Washington’s San Juan Islands’ open woodlands support madrone with Douglas-fir and fescue (Festuca spp.), as well as other species such as lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum). In British Columbia, Pacific madrone grows alongside lodgepole pine. Other tree species associated with madrone include sugar pine, white fir, California black oak, giant chinquapin, bigleaf maple, bitter cherry and California laurel, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Small trees/large shrubs commonly associated include vine maple, black hawthorn, red-twig dogwood, willow, hazelnut, and red elderberry. Smaller shrub associates include manzanitas, Oregon grape, ceanothus, salal, oceanspray, poison-oak, gooseberry, wood rose, snowberry, huckleberry, and thimbleberry.

Madrone mingles with Oregon white oak, aka Garry oak (Quercus garryana), in parts of its range.

As always, buy plants propagated from source material that originated as close as possible to your site. Using such “local genotypes” helps ensure that you get plants that are well adapted to your area and that genetic diversity—which helps plants (and animals) adapt to changing conditions—is preserved. Ask growers and nurseries about their sources if you’re unsure.

Pacific madrone are fairly easy to grow from seed. Collect fruit soon after it ripens, generally early to mid-fall. Because one berry can have up to 20 seeds, you won’t need more than one if you just want to grow a few trees.

Separate the seeds from the pulp of a ripe, red berry (if they have dried, soak them overnight to help release the seeds from the pulp). Place them in a small bowl of water for 15-20 minutes; discard those that float and allow those that sink to dry in a cool place out of sunlight. Dry seeds may be viable for a couple of years if stored properly in a cold, dry place. Place seeds on top of a fine seedling mix, either in a pot outdoors or in the soil where you want a tree to grow, and cover just slightly. I like to grow them in pots so I have a little more control, but I’ve had success both ways. If you choose to use pots, keep them moist but not wet, and keep them away from slugs and snails.

Madrone seeds reportedly are able to maintain dormancy for long periods (“scores of years”) in the soil, but when conditions are just right — cold but above-freezing temperatures and adequate moisture — dormancy is broken in late winter/early spring after cold stratification has weakened the seed coat. At that point pots should be moved into a somewhat warm (if possible), bright location, but with little direct sunlight—seedlings establish best in partial shade and will grow fairly slowly. Keep them moist, but not saturated. After they have developed their second or third set of true leaves they may be moved to bigger pots with fast-draining soil (I like to use a mix of sterilized potting soil and small gravel), handling them by their expendable first set of leaves, not their delicate stems. Water them when the top inch of soil is dry; I find it’s hard to overwater with fast draining soil, but do give them time to dry out slightly. Plant them out when they’re 3 to 10 inches tall, preferably in autumn, in the conditions described above. Don’t attempt to relocate them.

© 2017 Eileen M. Stark

To leave a comment, click on post’s title

Thin, smooth bark makes Madrone tree trunks seem cool to the touch

On August 21st, 2017 we learned about

I may need to start petting trees more often. I’ve long known of trees that had particular colors and smells in their leaves and trunks, but I only learned in the last week that some trees hold surprises for your finger tips to discover. The tree in question was a Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and was actually hard to miss thanks to its striking red bark peeling off the trunk. The surprise was that the tree was cool to the touch, which is why it’s sometimes called the “refrigerator tree.”

For something cool to the touch, Madrone trees need lots of sunshine to thrive. If conditions are right, they can grow to be nearly 100 feet tall, but at smaller sizes Madrone trees can be mistaken for some of their red-barked relatives, like the Manzanita (Arctostaphylos). Both plants’ eye catching bark grows thin and smooth, but this trait is especially striking in mid-summer when Madrone tree bark starts to peel off the trunk. At that point, a quick touch makes it hard to ignore how much cooler these trees are than the surrounding environment.

Cold or just conductive?

Except that they’re not really cooler. The trees’ temperature is likely the same as any of the other similarly-sized plants that grow near them, just like a paper book is the same temperature as a metal keys sitting in the same room. With sufficient time, the temperatures equalize, but when we touch the metal, or the Madrone trunk, it feels colder. This is because heat is more easily transferred to certain materials than others, and when heat from our hand is conducted away we perceive it as colder. Now, a Madrone tree obviously isn’t metal, but that thin, smooth bark isn’t as good an insulator as the rough, corky bark that you find on most trees. Your hand is able to come into more contact with the smooth surface, and the sap and fluids flowing inside the trunk can then wick your body heat away.

Even if refrigerator trees aren’t actually colder, their unusual bark obviously still stands out from that of their neighbors in the forest. The thin, peeling bark that exposes the trunk may have originally evolved as a form of defense. By shedding the outer layer of bark, the tree can dump any fungi, mosses, lichens or other parasites that tried taking up residence on the red wood. The red itself is likely another form of defense, as the tannins that make up that coloration would be bitter and possibly toxic to animals that might want to munch on the tree, not unlike the colorful bark found on rainbow eucalyptus. It’s good that the peeling is helpful to these plants, because now that they know about these chilled trees, it’s going to be hard to keep my kids’ hands off them.

Source: The Refrigerator Tree by Steve, Nature Outside

  • Share what you learned!

Trees with attractive bark

Many garden trees have a particular, defining characteristic that makes them worth growing. It might be an abundance of blossom in spring, vibrant foliage in autumn or brightly coloured fruits.


Some tree species are highly prized for their striking, ornamental bark. These trees are particularly useful in winter, when colour and interest might otherwise be lacking.

Many trees can be crown lifted by pruning out the lowest branches, which makes the main trunk more visible. The bark of trees like birch and cherries can also be wiped with warm water and a cloth, to remove any algae obscuring the colourful stems.

More about garden trees:

  • Top trees for small gardens
  • Fast-growing trees
  • Native trees and shrubs to grow

Discover some of our favourite trees with attractive bark, below.

Snow gum

Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. niphophila

The snow gum, Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. niphophila is an attractive evergreen tree with beautiful patchwork bark containing green, grey, green and copper tones. Grow in neutral to acidic soil in full sun.

Snake-bark maple

Acer rufinerve ‘Erythrocladum’

Snake-bark maples have fabulous vertical stripes tracing the bark, created as the trunk expands. Normally the bark is an attractive silvery green, but you can also grow cultivars like ‘Erythrocladum’ and ‘Winter Gold’ that have warmer, golden-coloured bark.


Betula utilis var. jacquemontii

The gleaming, usually white bark of birch trees is always a cheering sight, especially when set against a colourful backdrop. Betula utilis var. jacquemontii is a popular choice for its particularly white bark, but there are many more options. Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis has bark in shades of mahogany, pink and white, while that of Betula ermanii is a creamy gold tone. Betula dahurica has very striking, intensely flaky bark.

Paperbark maple

Acer griseum

As its common name suggests, the paperbark maple has endlessly peeling bark in a rich shade of chestnut brown. The branches have a lovely, spreading habit and in autumn the foliage turns a vivid shade of red before the leaves fall.

Prunus serrula

Prunus serrula

The Tibetan cherry, Prunus serrula, bears shiny, red-brown bark that slowly peels away. When the sun shines on the exposed trunk, it illuminates any papery fragments of bark still attached to the tree to beautiful effect.

Monkey puzzle tree

Monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana Advertisement

Monkey puzzles are long-lived trees with a trunk that is covered in small leaves arranged in a mesmerising spiral. As the trunk ages and lower branches are lost, ‘eye’ holes remain where they once emerged from.

18 Trees with Beautiful Bark

I look forward to every season in the garden and to the unique charms and qualities that each has to offer. In winter, a blue sky day is the ideal time to appreciate trees, both native and exotic, with ornamental bark. Some like crape myrtle, kousa dogwoods and Stewartia species offer not only handsome bark that shines in winter but beautiful blooms too, during the growing season. And certain trees like the native American sycamore or the crape myrtle ‘Natchez’ look good no matter what the season.

Whether peeling, patchy, colorful, shiny or dull, bark is an asset. When you plant trees with ornamental bark, think about siting them against a backdrop of evergreens or conifers which will help to show off their bark, especially in winter. Including one or more trees with showy bark in your garden will help create a landscape with year-round interest.

Below is a list of trees with noteworthy bark. All are good choices for specimens or focal points in the landscape. Most become more decorative as they mature over time. Some like river birch, Betula nigra ‘Heritage’, can get quite large and require lots of room to grow. A blend of colors, their colorful peeling bark can be easily appreciated from a distance or up close.

18 Bark Beauties

1. Trident maple: (Acer buergerianum) This tree has scaly, exfoliating bark that gets more ornamental with age, in gray, orange and brown. Zones 5 to 8.

2. Paperbark maple: (Acer griseum) Here’s a tree that has peeling cinnamon-colored bark. Zones 4 to 8.

3. Japanese maple: (Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’) With yellow peachy stems, Japanese maple is a standout in the winter garden. Zones 5 to 8.

4. Japanese maple: (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’) This variety is striking, with coral-orange-red stems in winter. Zones 5 to 8.

5. River birch: (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’) River birch has peeling salmon-white bark. Zones 4 to 9.

6. Paper birch: (Betula papyrifera) Paper birch has chalk white bark. Zones 2 to 6.

7. European hornbeam: (Carpinus betulus) European hornbeam’s bark is gray and muscle-like. Zones 4 to7.

8. Shagbark hickory: (Carya ovata) Big shaggy strips of bark attach at the center and curl up. Zones 4 to 9.

9. Kousa dogwood: (Cornus kousa) This tree has a patchwork of gray, tan, brown and orange. Zones 5 to 8.

10. American beech: (Fagus grandifolia) You can recognize American beech trees by their smooth, silver gray trunks. Zones 4 to 9.

11. European beech: (Fagus sylvatica) European beech trees have smooth gray bark. Zones 5 to 7.

12. Chinese parasol tree: (Firmiana simplex) This tree has dark green bark. Zones 6 to 9.

13. Crape myrtle: (Lagerstroemia ‘Natchez’) Crape myrtle has cinnamon-colored bark. Zones 7 to 9.

14. American sycamore: (Platanus occidentalis) Brown bark peels to reveal white inner bark. American sycamore is a large specimen tree that gets showier with age. Zones 4 to 9.

15. Chinese quince: (Pseudocydonia sinensis) Chinese quince has peeling sycamore-like bark. Zones 6 to 8.

16. Tall stewartia: (Stewartia monadelpha) Tall stewartia has cinnamon brown bark. Zones 6 to 8.

17. Japanese stewartia: (Stewartia pseudocamellia) Japanese stewartia has exfoliating gray, red and orange bark. Zones 5 to 7.

18. Lacebark elm: (Ulmus parvifolia) The bark of the lacebark elm sheds to reveal a patchwork of red, brown, green and gray. Zones 4 to 9.

Would you like to plant some of these striking trees in your yard? Hire an expert landscaping contractor.

Erica Glasener is a Networx writer.

Updated January 29, 2018.

Ornamental Bark On Trees: Choosing Trees With Showy Bark

Ornamental trees aren’t all about foliage. Sometimes the bark is a show in and of itself, and one that can be especially welcome in the winter, when flowers and leaves have disappeared. Keep reading to learn more about some of the best ornamental trees with interesting bark.

Choosing Trees with Showy Bark

Here are some common varieties to choose for ornamental bark on trees.

River Birch – A tree that grows very well on the banks of streams, it can also serve as a specimen on a lawn or garden. Its bark peels away in papery sheets to reveal a striking color contrast with the bark underneath.

Chilean Myrtle – A relatively small tree at 6 to 15 feet high, it has smooth red-brown bark that peels attractively as it ages.

Coral Bark Maple – A tree with strikingly red branches and stems. It actually turns more impressively red in cold weather. As the branches age, they take on a darker green cast, but new stems will always be bright red.

Crape Myrtle – Another myrtle, this one’s bark peels away in thin layers, creating a smooth but beautifully mottled effect.

Strawberry Tree – It doesn’t actually grow strawberries, but its bark is a gorgeous red that peels away in shreds, creating a highly textured, multicolor look.

Red-twig Dogwood – Just as its name suggests, this small tree’s branches are bright red. Their color gets even brighter in cold weather.
Striped Maple – A mid-sized tree with green bark and long, white, vertical striations. Its bright yellow foliage in the fall only heightens the effect.

Lacebark Pine – A tall, spreading tree with naturally flaking bark that makes for a mottled pattern of green, pink, and gray pastels, especially on the trunk.

Lacebark Elm – Mottled green, gray, orange, and brown peeling bark covers the trunk of this large shade tree. As a bonus, it’s resistant to Dutch elm disease.

Hornbeam – A beautiful shade tree with striking fall foliage, its bark is naturally sinewy, taking on the appearance of flexing muscles.

18 trees with beautiful bark

Take a closer look

A crisp winter day with blue skies is the ideal time to appreciate trees with ornamental bark. Some like crape myrtle, kousa dogwoods and Stewartia species (a Stewartia pseudocamellia is pictured here) offer not only handsome bark that shines in winter but also beautiful blooms during the growing season. And certain trees like the native American sycamore or the crape myrtle ‘Natchez’ look good no matter what the season.

Whether peeling, patchy, colorful, shiny or dull, bark is an asset. When you plant trees with ornamental bark, think about siting them against a backdrop of evergreens or conifers which will help to show off their bark, especially in winter. Including one or more trees with showy bark in your garden will help create a landscape with year-round interest.

Here are several trees with noteworthy bark. All are good choices for specimens or focal points in the landscape. Most become more ornamental as they mature over time. Some, like river birch Betula nigra ‘Heritage,’ can get quite large and require lots of room to grow. A blend of colors, their colorful peeling bark can be easily appreciated from a distance or up close.

Erica Glasener originally wrote this story for It is republished with permission here and some modifications and additions have been made.

Trees with exfoliating bark

by Crystal Cockman

July 20, 2017

A friend of mine sent me a picture of the beautiful river birch she has on her property near Troy a while back. Another friend is proud of her sycamore tree in her front yard, which sold her on the house where she lives currently. This got me to thinking about the trees in our forests in the eastern United States that possess exfoliating bark. The term exfoliating or peeling bark describes the natural process and condition of the bark peeling away from a tree trunk.

River birch (Betula nigra) is a deciduous tree that is native to the eastern United States, north to Minnesota and west to Kansas and south to Florida. They are restricted to stream banks and other moist places. Trees can grow up to 70 feet tall and 30 inches in diameter. They are one of the few heat-tolerant birches in a family of mostly cold-weather trees.

The bark of the river birch is very distinctive – gray-brown to pinkish brown to ivory, exfoliating in curly papery sheets. Leaves are alternate, simple, and oval shaped with serrated edges. Fruits mature in late spring, making it a valuable tree for wildlife. White-tailed deer browse the twigs, buds and foliage, and grouse, turkeys, small birds and rodents eat the seeds.

The American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is another lowland species native to North America. They too have exfoliating bark that flakes off. This leaves the surface of the tree mottled and greenish-white, gray and brown. The bark of the tree has to give way to a growing trunk by stretching, splitting or infilling. The bark of sycamore trees is very rigid, and will not stretch to accommodate the growing tree underneath, so the tree sheds it off.

The sycamore grows to a larger trunk diameter than any other native hardwood. The present champion tree’s diameter is 11 feet, and there are records up to 16 feet in diameter. Sycamore trees can grow from 100 feet to 150 feet tall. They also have the largest leaves of any native tree in North America. They are one of the oldest species of trees on earth. Small animals like squirrels commonly den in sycamores because of the warped, twisted branches.

The shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is a large deciduous tree growing in the Eastern United States and Canada. They can be over 100 feet tall and live more than 350 years. They have shaggy bark, as their name implies, though it looks different from the bark of the riverbirch or sycamore. It is thicker and more prominent, as long peeling strips. The nuts of a shagbark hickory are edible and were an important food source for Native Americans and early settlers. They are eaten by a wide variety of wildlife. They grow best on moist but well drained soils in humid climates. A fun fact: Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president, was nicknamed “Old Hickory” because he was considered to be as tough as a hickory tree.

These trees with exfoliating bark have a really unique appearance. River birches look very delicate and pretty, while shagbark hickories look coarse and shaggy. Keep your eye out for these species on your next walk in the woods and take a minute to notice their distinctive look and how they differ from other trees without the exfoliating bark. Some species of bat may roost behind the shaggy bark of a shagbark hickory. Think about what other ways these trees may provide for wildlife species.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *