Winter is when we enjoy the bare bones of the garden -- the trunks and branches of deciduous trees and shrubs, especially the bark.
Without all the lovely leaves and flowers, we notice just how different barks can be, with patterns that are circular or crevassed, shiny or layered.
At least one plant looks best in the winter because of its bark. The sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), whose exfoliating (peeling) gray or tan bark reveals stark white patches of trunk is glorious against a blue sky. In warm weather its large, messy leaves conceal most of its shape and handsome skin.
Bark, explains Jim McWilliams, an owner at Maxalea Nursery in Stoneleigh, is the layer on the outside of the tree or shrub that protects the vessels that conduct sugar and water up and down the tree. Exfoliating and fissuring of bark are the two systems of widening growth of the trunk and limbs. Bark ranges from light and exfoliating as in birch (Betula) to the fissured and dark, as in black walnut (Juglans nigra).
McWilliams suggests many trees and shrubs that are notable for their gorgeous bark. Appropriate size is important; you may want a tree that is as grand and stately as the sycamore, which can grow to over 130 feet, or the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), which can grow to 115 feet. Or you may need a smaller tree such as Heptacodium miconides, which has fragrant white flowers in early fall and olive bark which peels to a cinnamon color. McWilliams recommends the 'Bloodgood' variety of sycamore. Beech has a smooth gray bark, which looks gray, almost ghostly, against the sky, and which is the traditional slate for lovers to carve their initials on.
A dramatic peeling and shedding tree that grows to about 50 feet is River birch (Betulanigra). McWilliams says that 'Heritage' is most resistant to pests and diseases and is the most handsome and reliable of birches in this region.
The trunk of the dramatic paperback maple (Acer griseum) is a rich medium brown that also peels. The lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) is one of several pines that combines being evergreen with having shredding bark.
Valerie Schultz at Robert A. Schultz Inc. landscaping company and nursery in Monkton suggests many smaller trees that both flower and have exceptional bark. Stewartia has small white flowers in spring and dark brown peeling bark.
Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) blooms with papery pink or white or lavender flowers and has a satiny smooth, multi-colored, multi-stemmed trunk. Mature heights vary, from three to more than 20 feet. Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) produces tiny red flowers in March, brilliant fall foliage and mottled gray and white bark. Be careful where you plant it; it grows quite wide.
Don't forget the shrubs. Schultz suggests two dogwood shrubs, Cornus sericea 'Silver and Gold' which has bright yellow stems, and Cornus sericea 'Cardinal,' which is red stemmed. Either would be magic under snow.
In addition to adding beauty to the landscape, many barks are used in medicine or commerce. Potions of the leaves and bark of the white willow (Salix alba) were used in ancient Greece as a pain killer. We now know its synthesized crystallized powder as acetylsalic acid, or aspirin. In the 17th century, the boiled bark of the quinine tree (Cinchon calisaya) was discovered as a treatment for malaria. Quinine is also good in tonic with gin or vodka -- technically not a medicine.
The bark of yew (Taxus), a slow-growing, short needled evergreen shrub or tree, has been the source of Taxol, a medicine used against some forms of cancer. Both quinine and Taxol are produced synthetically now.
Cinnamomum zeylanicum, from the tropics, especially India and Sri Lanka, is the source of cinnamon, while cork oak (Quercus suber) gives us cork.
444 East Main St.
Westminster, Md. 21157
Maxalea Nursery, Inc.
900 Oak Hill Road
Baltimore, Md. 21239
The Robert A. Schultz Co.
P.O. Box 579
Monkton, Md. 21111
White Flower Farm
P.O. Box 50
Litchfield, Conn. 06759-0050