Bark, the protective layer of trees’ stems and roots, is one of those things that’s easy to take for granted. At this time of year, though, gardens and parks are quieter places so you have space to notice and observe different things.
The shape of trees and how they move in the wind can make a dramatic statement in the wintertime. So can the sometimes startling colour and texture of their trunks, often drawn to our attention by the low light of winter mornings and afternoons. Bark can be, quite simply, quite beautiful.
On some trees it’s quite normal for the bark to be flaky or even peel off. The tree isn’t ill or diseased; this is what it does and it exposes another colour below.
Take the London plane tree, for example, the tree that copes so well with pollution and compacted soils that it’s grown in big cities. This tree has wonderful marbled, some say ‘camouflaged’, bark. It ranges from olive green to grey in colour and has large scaly plates that peel off to reveal cream below.
Look at the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) whose chestnut-coloured bark flakes off to show orange-red. This looks good in sunshine and is certainly a possible choice for small gardens as it grows slowly.
The birch family (Betula) are all great for bark, and they grow fast and easily. Some are silver or very white, such as the Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) and the paperbark birch (Betula papyrifera) whose white bark peels to show orange beneath. (Some gardeners wash the pale trunks clean of algae in the winter, so they gleam more.) There are birches with warm brown, red and orange trunks too. Small birds in the tit family love feeding in birch trees, so they are often full of sound as well as looking good in winter.
Any self-respecting Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) has bark in two colours. On the upper trunk and branches it’s thin, flaky and orange-red. On the lower trunk it’s thick, scaly and dark grey / purple/ brown. Caught in sunshine, a Scots pine gleams, in a stately kind of way.
A tree’s bark can be as beautiful as its foliage and flowers. Let it stop you in your tracks this winter.