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Beautiful Bark Adds To Winter Landscape
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Bark can play an important role in winter landscapes if we choose the right trees. As deciduous trees loose their leaves, their bark is exposed to make a dramatic impact in the landscape. We can certainly make our garden more interesting in the winter by planting trees and shrubs that offer striking bark.
Notice how the patterns of bark vary from tree to tree. As trees and shrubs get older and grow wider, the bark may peel, split or shed to create a wonderful new look. Some surfaces are smooth, some textured, and beautiful patterns and colors come alive in the winter.
The river birch bark is among the most beautiful. It loses its bark in papery plates, exposing the inner bark which is colored gray-brown to cinnamon-brown. The Heritage variety sheds to white or salmon-white bark.
River birch is well suited to the portion of the landscape that stays wet, but may become dry in the summer. It thrives in soils that have a pH below 6.5. These trees are medium to fast growers, reaching 30 to 40 feet in 20 years and eventually topping out at 70 feet.
Crape myrtles always have pretty bark but some of the new varieties are outstanding. With its smooth, twisted gray-brown bark, it not only makes an outstanding choice for summer flower but winter wood too. It looks it has been sanded and then polished.
The crape myrtle breeding program began in 1962 at the U.S. National Arboretum when researchers crossed Lagerstroemia indica with another from Japan called Lagerstroemia fauriei. One of the resulting traits was dark, reddish-brown, mottled bark.
One of the hybrids is the Natchez, which after about 5 years of age develops a dark, cinnamon-brown, mottled exfoliating bark. This is a large crape myrtle that reaches 21 feet high and wide. It has pure white flowers and the leaves turn orange to red in the fall.
The Apalachee is about 12 feet 6 inches tall and 8 feet 6 inches wide with light lavender flowers and foliage that turns purple-red in the fall. The bark sheds to reveal cinnamon to chestnut-brown coloration.
Zuni is a semi-dwarf, multi-stemmed crape myrtle reaching 9 feet high and 8 feet wide. The flowers are a medium lavender. The leaves are glossy and become dark green before turning orange-red to dark red in the fall. The wood becomes gray, then turns light brown and gray on older branches and trunk.
Judging from the flower power of the crape myrtle, added with its disease resistance, fall leaf color and excellent bark coloration, the Natchez, Apalachee and Zuni hail as three winners.
One of the most exotic looking and greatly underused trees is the Chinese parasol tree (firmiana simplex). This tree is suitable for most of the South and reaches 30 to 45 feet tall. The bark is smooth, green and gives a tropical appearance.
One of the most impressive sites in the winter landscape is the native sycamore. The bark is mostly smooth, very light grayish-brown, and flakes off in large, irregular, thin pieces exposing the creamy white inner bark.
Although diseases and insects plague these trees, gorgeous sycamores stands are along the state's roadsides, and photogenic specimens can be found in church yards and school yards. It is definitely gorgeous this time of year.