Winter offers a great opportunity to see a tree’s bark, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
“Many trees offer spectacular bark,” said Rhonda Ferree. “Too often people overlook this part of a plant’s aesthetic qualities. But considering that most deciduous trees and shrubs are without leaves for many long winter months, we should consider using trees and shrubs with good bark character.”
Some trees are actually more beautiful without foliage because of their bark. Good examples include Acer griseum and Ulmus parvifolia. Acer griseum goes by the common name of Paperbark Maple because of its spectacular bark, which is a cinnamon-brown that exfoliates to expose rich brown colors. Ulmus parvifolia is also called Lacebark Elm. It has magnificent bark with mottled combinations of gray, green, orange, and brown. Compared to other elms, it shows considerable disease and insect resistance.
"The trees most commonly planted for their bark characteristics are white-barked trees. Examples are birch, sycamore, and white poplars,” she noted.
Paper birch trees are very popular, but unfortunately do not typically live long in central Illinois. Two commonly planted white birch trees are white birch (Betula papyrifera) and European White Birch (Betula pendula). Both have whitish bark, but the European’s bark does not peel as much and with age the trunk becomes black.
Both of these trees are extremely susceptible to the bronze birch borer. Therefore, I do not recommend planting these trees unless you are willing to replace them every few years,” Ferree said.
A better option is to plant a white barked version of our native river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’). The Heritage River Birch is a patented selection introduced by Earl Cully from Jacksonville, Illinois. The bark on ‘Heritage’ peels on young trunks to a white or salmon-white and has superior vigor. Best of all, the river birch is resistant to the bronze birch borer.
Sycamore trees are native trees with bark that exfoliates to a whitish color. This tree is one of the tallest of the native trees and commonly seen along streams and rivers. The American Sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis) grows 75 to 100 feet tall with a similar spread. It is great for naturalized plantings or as a single specimen (if you don’t mind the nuisance fruit). This tree has creamy colored bark compared to its relative the London Planetree (Platanus x acerifolia) that has more olive colored bark.
White or Silver Poplars (Populus alba) have cream colored bark. These are wide spreading, irregular shaped trees. Unfortunately, poplars are prone to many insect and disease problems and tend to be very messy; routinely dropping leaves, twigs, and branches. Therefore, poplars are not typically recommended as landscape trees.
“On the next winter, blue sky day take some time to admire white barked trees in your neighborhood,” Ferree said.
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