A Tree's Bark Is Bigger Than Its Bite
Dr. Forrest Bump
Forest Grove, Oregon
Sir Lionel de Rothschild, owner of the great Exbury Estate and doyen of the amateur rhododendron growers in the first half of the century, is reputed to have remarked that no matter how small, every garden should have at least one acre of natural woodland!
I now paraphrase that famous statement to say that no matter how small, every garden should have at least one ornamental tree. And by ornamental I mean one or preferably more of the following qualities: ornamental flowers or fruits, fall or winter foliage color, attractive form or branching patter, or beautiful bark. Compatibility with rhododendrons is an essential quality for this tree and its size should be commensurate with lot size. The Betula genus (birch) offers many species and varieties with particularly attractive bark and golden leaves in fall. I'm particularly fond of Betula ermanii for its uniquely patterned, peeling bark and attractive plant habit, and Betula costata, unfortunately rare in the trade, is adorned with bark fish-belly white in color that flakes off instead of peeling. I have seen this only in Bill Corbin's garden.
For very small gardens the witch hazels offer colorful winter flowers with most clothed in colorful fall leaves. And it is offered commercially grafted high on Parrotia persica understock, which overrides attractively peeling bark as an older plant providing a third ornamental feature.
There are a zillion beautiful flowering cherries in the world, most of Japanese origin, most with modestly colored autumn leaves, and all easily grafted on Prunus serrula (not sarrulata) understock to provide year-round beautiful bark. The yellow-flowered cherry 'Ukon' would look good on Prunus mackii understock (yellow bark).
And then there are the stewartias, a small genus of summer flowering small trees, two of which have very attractive colors with patterned bark.
There are enough maples in the world to fill a large book and one was recently published. At least two of these possess strikingly beautiful bark: Acer griseum with peeling bark and a close relative with white, vertically furrowed bark, which is quite distinctive.
The lagerstroemias have pretty late summer flowers and smooth ornamental bark. Get the picture?
I like bark. Every plant should have as many features as possible to enhance the garden, and one of them whenever possible should be beautiful bark. After all, it remains pretty after the flowers, fruits and foliage are long gone.