The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Barking up the Right Tree

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

In autumn trees scream for our attention with their kaleidoscope of colorful foliage. Trees we have ignored hundreds of times during our daily routines have now shed their collective covering of chlorophyllic green to reveal their unique inner beauty of red, orange and yellow. As winter approaches trees are denuded of their leafy finery to reveal their picturesque form and distinctive bark. Some require a bark appreciation class while others are effortlessly valued by all like a fine Van Gogh. When we select trees for our landscapes our shopping list might include fall color, mature height, flowers, fruits, and pest resistance, however, bark is often overlooked as an ornamental attribute.

Paper birches are known for their bright white bark of northern forests and dugout canoes. The brown exfoliating bark of river birches is lovely but more reminiscent of the colors of the Sangamon River than of the white caps of northern lakes. Few trees rival the pearly white bark of our native sycamore often found along the banks of local rivers. Numerous trees are not as well known for their bark.

The exfoliating cinnamon colored bark of paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has few rivals. Even as a young tree it quickly fulfills its destiny of awe-inspiring beauty. They are sometimes difficult to find in garden centers, but are worth the effort to locate them. If you would like to be awe-inspired, you can enjoy two paperbark maples locally. They are located on the west side of Allen Hall on East Gregory on the UI Urbana campus. A very large paperbark was moved to the parkway southwest of the UI Agriculture Library when the expansion of Bevier Hall threatened its demise. With lots of TLC it has stretched its legs into its new home.

The silky spicy brown bark of amur cherry (Prunus maackii) is exquisite in every season. Both amur cherry and paperbark maple deserve a front row seat in the landscape where they can be appreciated up close. Some trees mysteriously attempt to hide with their trunks draped in camouflage clothing, but instead grab our attention with their multicolored bark. Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) bark is clothed in winter camouflage gear with shades of grey and white. The bark of corneliancherry dogwood (Cornus mas), lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia), and Japanese zelkova (Zelkova serrata) flakes off to reveal a patchwork of varying shades of grey, brown and orange.

Some trees are not as obviously barkalicious. Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) offers smooth grey bark with dark striations. With their white spring flowers and red to yellow fall color serviceberry is a small tree with four season beauty. The sinewy bark of musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) proves the tree is appropriately named. As beech (Fagus spp.) trees age their trunk looks like a trunk, as in an elephant trunk. Our native Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) has some of the most remarkable bark even as a young tree. The long smooth plates curve gracefully out at the sides. If ants could skateboard, the coffeetree would be a half-pipe dream.

This winter take a closer look at what the best dressed trees are wearing. Start off by joining city forester for the city of Champaign, Bill Vander Weit and me on Saturday October 31, 2009 from 9:00 AM to 11:30 PM for the University Avenue Tree Walk. Meet on the corner of University Avenue and Victor in Champaign, just one block east of Mattis Avenue. No charge and receive a free University Avenue Tree Walk Guide. For more information phone 217-333-7672.

If fall foliage is your thing and you want to know more about why it happens as well as discover great places to view fall color check out To see ongoing fall color changes throughout the US without leaving your home, just click on their foliage cams. It's almost like being there.

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