If I had a bigger garden, one of my (many) aims would be to plant more trees. There are the obvious benefits for the environment and wildlife to consider: more habitat, food and shelter for birds, insects and other creatures, plus all that oxygen being pumped back into the atmosphere. And then there’s cheery autumn leaf colour and the possibility of fabulous dreamy blossom in spring. But often the most beautiful part of a tree in the dark months of winter, and perhaps the subtlest of its charms, is directly at eye level.
Unless you’re a bit of a tree hugger, you may not have noticed just how wonderful bark can be. That’s partly because tree trunks are more easily appreciated in winter, without the distractions of summer’s flamboyant floor show: when the garden is stripped back, the details of bark can take centre stage. So if you’re thinking about a new tree for your garden, or looking round a park or an arboretum, it’s worth taking a moment or two to really study the trunk of the tree.
A good number of trees shed their bark in a particularly pleasing way. I think the most dramatic of these is the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) , one of Ernest Wilson’s finds from his expeditions to China at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s in winter that the bark really starts to peel off in delicious fat russet curls, most obviously on the trunk but also on the branches. It has glorious autumn foliage, too, and the tree is slow-growing, eventually reaching about 10 metres given ideal conditions, so a great choice if you have room for just one decorative tree.
I have a couple of Himalayan birch trees (Betula utilis jacquemontii) in my back garden. They were planted before we moved here, but I’m so glad they were. They’re ideal for a city garden as they’re slim and shapely and cast only a little gentle dappled shade. The birds love the catkins in early spring and in winter the white uprights of the trunks give the garden the most elegant structure. I love the polished sheen of the bark: it can be quite dazzling on a darker day, and it splits and peels off in soft, papery curls. Plant in threes if you have the space, to create a little copse that will shimmer.
One of the best evergreens for beautiful bark is the lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana). It’s a fairly big, shrub-like tree with handsome branching growth, thus a whole load more bark to admire. Its trunk and branches have a smooth grey surface that peels away to reveal a tactile tapestry of charcoal, purple and green. It’s incredibly slow growing, so for patient gardeners only. If you can’t wait long enough to grow your own, there’s a fabulous one at Kew Gardens that’s around 16 metres tall.
A lot of the cherry trees have great bark, too. A mature Tibetan Cherry tree (Prunus serrula ‘Tibetica’) has wonderful banding that stretches around the trunk in deep-red satin ribbons. It suits any garden, whatever the size, as it will grow to about 8m tall, but it does need a really good sunny spot to produce the most colourful bark.
I read that Alan Titchmarsh gives the bark of his birches a gentle scrub to remove built-up algae, and that some bark enthusiasts even jet-wash the trunks of their favourite birches. If, one day, I get to plant all of these trees, I’m not sure I’ll be going to quite those lengths. But I can see why it might be tempting…
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer