Barking Up the Right Tree

The beauty of unclothed deciduous trees includes one of their most overlooked but dramatic features: the bark. Especially in winter the many colors, textures and patterns of bark in selected species seem to take on a whole new beauty.

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Hide CaptionShow CaptionThe exfoliating, multicolored bark of the river birch is showiest when the tree is young. The bark of mature river birches is dark gray and deeply fissured.
One of my favorite spots in my garden is a small grove of river birch (Betula nigra). Imagine a stunning and lustrous white bark that peels to expose light reddish-brown to cinnamon underlayers. As the tree matures, the trunk usually becomes a dark reddish-brown, deeply lined and broken into oddly shaped platelike scales. There are many possibilities among individual trees because there is a lot of variability in this species. Some people claim the color is everything from salmon pink to fabulous shades of brown. Frankly, each tree is exciting and the differences make it a unique planting. River birch grows medium to fast, which makes it a good choice for new homeowners, usually averaging 40 feet tall. The small dark green leaves provide light shade, making river birches the perfect foil for perennial or ground cover plantings beneath their branches. 'Heritage' does better in hot climates. It grows to optimum size in moist soil, but survives in drier soils. Hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9.