Bark is Beautiful
By Sara Malone, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Flowers are most people’s introduction to the world of gardening. Even most non-gardeners love flowers, whether in their natural state or arranged indoors. Plants are appreciative of our regard, I am sure, as they have spent millennia developing their flowers into colorful, shapely, attention-getting magnets for pollinators. But there is so much more to a plant than just its flowers! Last month we discussed foliage – the shapes, the colors and the textures that abound in leaves alone. This month we’re getting even more down and dirty – stripping plants of not only their flowers, but their foliage as well, and glorying in the beauty of the bark.
Another broadleaf evergreen with stunning bark is Arbutus ‘Marina’ (one of our ‘Sonoma Superstars’), a large shrub or small tree widely grown in Sonoma County. With the native madrone (Arbutus menziesii) in its parentage, it comes by its beautiful bark naturally, and is much more suited to garden culture than is its parent. A. ‘Marina’ can be grown as a standard, but I much prefer it as a multi-trunked specimen, with the lower branches pruned up to showcase the gorgeous peeling, cinnamony bark. Like the Drimys, the glossy green leaves provide beautiful contrast for the rusty trunks. Marina is blessed with lovely flowers and fruit, as well, but it doesn’t need them to be garden-worthy.
Lagerstroemia (Crape Myrtle) are just finishing their bloom here in Sonoma County but don’t be too sad to see those gaudy heads fade. Behind the flowers now comes the opportunity to see their lovely, mottled bark. Some varieties have much more interesting bark than others, and now is a good time to visit nurseries and discuss bark with the staff. If you can observe larger specimens with name tags on them, you’ll know what to plant for your own garden. As with most plants, the bark doesn’t really begin to show itself off until the plant gets a bit larger.
Acers, or maples, often are blessed with lovely and interesting bark. A. griseum is even called by the common name of paperbark maple because the bark is such a
Some of the best and most dramatic bark (especially when lit up by the late afternoon sunshine) can be found in the wild hereabouts, on the trunks of the native madrone (Arbutus menziesii, see above) and the many varieties of Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) which abound. Both have similar peeling, cinnamony bark to the A. ‘Marina’. The outer bark on the madrone peels away to reveal a greenish surface underneath, and the contrasting textures and colors are a marvel of nature. The manzanitas are smaller but no less dramatic. Their bark is a dark cinnamon, and is usually satiny and smooth to the touch. Larger specimens, especially those that have lost their lower branches due to lack of sun, have particularly dramatic branching structures which set off the bold bark.
Some manzanitas adapt to garden culture, especially A. ‘Howard McMinn’ (a ‘Sonoma Superstar’). On days when I’m in the mood for a meditative garden chore, I sit next to one of these beauties with a sharpened pruner and meticulously cut out all of the dead twigs on the lower branches and in the interior, which results in an open form which really shows off the bark. Our webmaster, who lives on the other side of the County in an oak woodland, has a grove of exceedingly large A.
Lest you think that bark is only for admiring on the plant, I have friends who like to make their table centerpieces out of whatever interesting and attractive vegetation they find in the garden on the day of the party. Last week’s gorgeous table decoration featured rust-tipped dried hydrangea blossoms, sedum rosettes, glossy camellia leaves and a dramatic shard of curly crape myrtle bark running down the center. Flowers, move over – it’s time to share the limelight with bark. I doubt, however, that we will be seeing corsages or wedding bouquets made from bark any time soon. There are some things, after all, to which flowers are better suited!
Other plants with interesting/attractive bark: luma apiculata, acer griseum, acer ‘Sangu-kaku’ (coral bark maple), many mature oaks, platanus racemosa (California sycamore), cedrus atlantica and its varieties.