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Bark Adds Interest to Winter Landscape

by Leslie Johnson

Picture of Bark on River Birch Tree
Bark on River Birch is very ornamental, adding winter interest.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It’s easy to see winter as a time of desolation in the landscape -- trees are bare, grass is dead -- when it’s not buried under the snow -- and many of the wild creatures of summer are miles away or out of sight in winter quarters.

The attractions of the winter landscape tend to be more subtle than the riot of flowers and foliage in spring and summer and the blazing colors of autumn, says Mary McLellan, Extension Master Gardener program coordinator at Michigan State University. But once you start looking, there are colors, textures and shapes galore.

Bark of Crepe Myrtle
Ornamental bark of Crepe Myrtle tree.

Textured or colorful bark adds interest to the winter view, she observes. The patchwork of browns and greens of sycamore and London plane tree, the black and white of river birch, the shaggy bark of the hickory and the smooth silver-gray of the beech tree are distinctive and easy to recognize, especially when trees are bare of foliage.

The branching systems of landscape trees are also more apparent in winter, she points out, and the distinctive shapes of American elms, sugar maples, tulip trees and pin oaks make them easy to recognize.

Some plants, such as beeches, hold onto at least some of their leaves through the winter. Others carry colorful fruits into and even through the cold months.

"Crabapples large and small may be red, orange or yellow," she observes. "The red-orange fruits of hawthorn and mountain ash and red Michigan holly berries add splashes of color to an otherwise largely gray and white landscape."

The seed pods of honey locust, catalpa and Kentucky coffee tree also add interest.

If you’re thinking it would be nice to add some plants with interesting bark to your landscape, winter is a good time to research them, McLellan suggests.

"Be sure to check out prospective additions to the landscape for hardiness, mature size, and potential problems with pests, diseases and storm damage, as well as ornamental characteristics,” she advises. “Plants that are well adapted to the growing conditions in your planting site and have few problems will probably require little maintenance and perform well for you – better than the exotic beauty that may struggle just to stay alive there."

Editor's Note: Leslie Johnson writes for Michigan State University Extension.


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