Trees are nearly always selected for their flowers, foliage, or form.
Yet, at this time of year, there is an often overlooked arboreal feature that may achieve sudden prominence in the garden. In winter, when most flowering ceases and deciduous trees shed their leaves, the stuff that covers branches and tree trunks, otherwise known as bark, may take the biggest bite out of our botanical observations.
Crape myrtle is probably the most popular flowering tree in Los Angeles. There are at least 50 crape myrtle varieties available in the nursery trade. Unfortunately, the varieties with stunning bark, the cinnamon siblings, are seldom seen. I often wonder what our parkways would look like in winter if the crape myrtles planted there possessed colorful bark. It appears that these cinnamon sisters are more expensive than their more common kin.
These crape myrtles with breathtaking bark are eminently suitable for Valley planting. Monrovia Nursery, which supplies crape myrtles to local retail nurseries, carries several cinnamon bark varieties, including the heavy blooming, white-flowered `Natchez,’ lavender-pink `Muskogee,’ and true pink `Pecos,’ an excellent selection for small spaces that grows to only 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide. These varieties are all mildew resistant `Fauriei’ hybrids with leaves that turn brilliant orange or red in the fall.
The Catalina ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus), whose name describes the color of its bark, is an evergreen with a columnar growth habit and highly unusual fern-like foliage. Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) is distinctive in never requiring pruning as it develops a perfectly symmetrical pyramidal shape that reveals reddish bronze bark.
The deciduous red or river birch (Betula occidentalis) has smooth coppery bark highlighted with white lenticels or slits which facilitate gas exchange between the trunk’s interior cells and the outside air. Red birch grows slowly to around 40 feet and, although a California native, requires regular moisture because of its riparian habitat, which means that it grows naturally on the banks of rivers or streams.
I cannot say enough words of praise for the white alder (Alnus rhombifolia).
Its whitish to ash gray bark is marked with captivating eye-shaped scars, indications of where branches were once attached. When given proper spacing, this tree is highly symmetrical and requires little pruning even after it reaches its mature height of 50 feet. Its shimmering green foliage always looks like it has just been washed in the rain.
No discussion of beautiful-barked trees would be complete without mention of the lemon-scented gum (Eucalyptus citriodora). The alabaster bark of this beauty gives it a unique backyard presence. A Mindanao gum or rainbow eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) grows famously on the edge of the UCLA botanical garden in Westwood, with peeling bark that is painted in pink, lavender and yellow-green.
This tree is tropical and cold sensitive so that, in the Valley, it should be given ample summer water and frost protection until it is robust enough, after a few years in the ground, to fend for itself.
A number of California native trees have notable barks that fall within the cinnamon to reddish brown spectrum. Anyone who has ever seen a mature arboreal manzanita (Arctostaphylos) species or hybrid, and has any true appreciation for plants, has to plant one. The manzanita’s smoothly polished, cinnamon-red bark has no rival in the botanical world. Your slow-growing, highly manageable manzanita tree will never need watering and will only need a gentle pruning now and then to encourage even growth. Its pinkish-white, urn-shaped flowers and leathery green foliage will keep you perpetually entranced.
Its smooth coppery bark highlighted with white slits makes the red or river birch beautiful in winter, even after it sheds its leaveSend e-mail to Joshua Siskin at Joshua@garden18.com.
Copyright (c) 2006 Daily News of Los Angeles
Record Number: 0701030118