Barking Up the Right Tree
Forrest Bump, M.D., Forest Grove, OR
If a plant is to compete successfully for a favored place in our landscape it must exhibit one or more of the following qualities:
1) Beautiful flowers: This is the sole reason for growing roses.
2) Attractive fruits: This trait has kept anti-social holly in our gardens and in our culture for millennia.
3) Evergreen leaves: The main merit of English laurel lies in its tough evergreen leaves.
4) Autumn or winter color: This feature found in a variety of plants is a potent stimulus to flagging spirits in the garden and sagging sales in the nursery yard.
5) Interesting limb structure: This feature adds a variety of trees and shrubs to the list of available landscape material. The contorted filbert, Corylus avellena contorta, is an example.
6) Distinctive bark: Flowers come and go, and leaves may peter-out you know - but bark goes on forever! Summer, fall, winter and spring ornamental bark is an ever ready optic feast for the gardening gourmet. A list of the visual goodies should always include Betula sp. albosinensis, ermanii and jacquemonti; Stewartia pseudo-camellia; Prunus serrula and Pinus bungeana.
Less likely to appear in a compendium of plants with ornamental bark, but just as deserving, are certain rhododendron species. These present us with fawn to red-brown, smooth, peeling bark, as some say, of utmost beauty. In every case the flowers of this group easily shame the inflorescence of the 'Cunningham's White' and the uncertain color of 'Pink Pearl'.
The Sikkim Himalaya gives us R. barbatum, intensely red in flower, unusual of leaf and adorned with a smooth peeling red-brown bark not unlike that of a manzanita.
Also from Sikkim are R. thomsonii and R. falconeri with fawn colored bark and gorgeous flowers, red in the former and cream in the latter. Related to R. thomsonii and in the same subsection is R. cyanocarpum with cream flushed pink flowers and a creamy smooth epidermis.
Perhaps the gem of them all is R. hodgsonii with opulent flowers, usually pink but sometimes deep red, large textured leaves, and limbs furnished with a velvety reddish bark - a combination rarely matched in the plant world. Note: A word of caution concerning smooth barked rhododendrons; adventitious sprouting is unlikely if these plants are pruned deeply into old wood.
There are others with ornamental bark that deserve mention. All deserve more widespread use in our gardens.
Point of Pride: With reference to the above listing of plant properties, local pride demands mention of two frequently overlooked natives whose accumulated qualities make them as rare as dew on the desert. Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon Grape) is an evergreen with showy flower yellow flowers in spring, clusters of powder-blue berries in fall and maroon coloration throughout the winter months giving this wildling a tetrad of merits that is exceeded in points only by its compatriot, Arctostaphylos columbiana. (manzanita). In this shrub we have unchanging evergreen leaves, clustered pinkish-white flowers in spring, rust-red berries in autumn, and striking smooth, red-brown bark on twisting, sinuous limbs presenting us with no less than five reasons for having this Oregon ornamental in a landscape scheme. TRY THEM!