Gardenwise: Beautiful Bark Takes the Bite Out of Winter

Pictured Above: Yes, the bark of Japanese maple ‘Sango kaku’ is really that deep coral color

By Susan Tito 

As effective as they are in brightening a dreary winter, evergreens can only take you so far. So…much…green…and still more than a month to go before spring! 

But if you think winter interest only comes from evergreens, think again. Just because a tree loses its leaves when temperatures drop doesn’t mean it loses its appeal. In fact, some of the most versatile and showy deciduous trees in spring or summer can be just as alluring in winter.

 The Kousa dogwood’s peeling bark is a desirable feature in winter (Susan Tito photo).
The Kousa dogwood’s peeling bark is a desirable feature in winter | Susan Tito photo

The Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) is one example of an attractive wintertime tree. Many gardeners plant this small ornamental for its white June blooms, reddish-purple autumn foliage and pendant red fruits that resemble raspberries, but the show doesn’t stop there: In winter, this tree stands out because of its mottled gray, tan and brown peeling bark, especially on mature specimens. 

Hailing from Asia, the Kousa dogwood should not be confused with the native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). The import is more cold-hardy and has better disease resistance than our native dogwood. In addition, flowering dogwood does not have the characteristic exfoliating bark of its Asian counterpart.

Depending on the selec- tion, the bark of crape myrtle can range in color from tan to cinnamon  |  Susan Tito photo
Depending on the selection, the bark of crape myrtle can range in color from tan to cinnamon | Susan Tito photo

Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) is another multi-season tree with attractive peeling bark in the winter. These small ornamentals were once found only in the South, but over the past few decades vigorous breeding programs have produced hardy hybrids that can tolerate our cold winters. Crape myrtle is truly versatile: It can be grown as single-trunk or multi-trunk specimens, and ranges in size from dwarf varieties up to 20 feet tall. 

They can be slow to leaf out in the growing season, however, which may needlessly worry neophyte gardeners who wonder if they lost their crape myrtle over the winter, a time when the tree’s shedding bark is more prominent. Rest assured, the exfoliating tree is doing what it is supposed to be doing, especially if it’s a mature specimen. Depending on the species, the tree’s under bark may be tan or cinnamon colored. No matter the hue, it’s beautiful!


There is much to like about the  American sycamore, especially its bark that resembles camouflage | Susan Tito photo

In terms of winter beauty, I would be remiss not to mention the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). Unless you live on a wooded plot or have a decent amount of land, I can’t recommend planting this beauty, as it needs room to spread. If you happen to have one on your property, cherish it, for it truly is a showstopper.

For starters, the tree is a behemoth: It has one of the largest trunk diameters of trees native to eastern North America — up to eight feet – and can grow to a massive 100 feet tall! What’s more, it is one of the longest-lived trees, with some specimens reaching the ripe old age of 600 years.

But it is the shedding bark on mature specimens that makes this tree so interesting. Resembling a camouflage-colored jigsaw puzzle, the bark sloughs off in irregular pieces. It is beautiful to gaze upon, but be warned: This tree is messy. In addition to its shedding bark, the American sycamore has dangling seed pods that will make landscape cleanup a true pain in the grass.

Japanese maple ‘Sango kaku’
Japanese maple ‘Sango kaku’

The coral bark Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is the only ornamental here that doesn’t have peeling bark, but make no mistake, it is more eye-catching than all the others in winter. ‘Sango kaku’ is a selection that sports coral-pink bark that is especially pronounced on the tree’s young branches and twigs. Here’s a fun fact about the tree: cold weather — the colder, the better — intensifies its color. 

I’m embarrassed to admit that I nearly had a car accident the first time I glimpsed this tree. I was driving down a side street in an unfamiliar area one winter and glanced over to the side and saw what appeared to be a coral-colored painted tree. I almost plowed into a row of parked cars trying to get a better look! The color was that brilliant. 

I’ve since learned a lot about the coral bark Japanese maple and regularly recommend it to clients. But don’t take my word for it; you really have to see it for yourself to appreciate its beauty. Gorgeous bark aside, this tree, as with most Japanese maples, has lovely foliage. In spring, its leaves emerge yellow-green with reddish margins, maturing to light green in summer before turning yellowish-gold by fall.

In profiling these trees, I’ve come to realize that bark that is peeling and appealing this time of year may just be the antidote to the winter blahs. I think I can wait for spring, can you?


Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Communicators International. She can be reached at stito630@gmail.com.

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