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Barking up all the right trees; Make a trunk call in your garden - and discover a hidden magical beauty that can brighten up the winter.

NOW that high winds and storms such as Barney have cleared so many leaves from our garden trees, a hitherto hidden beauty is revealed.

When trees are dressed in the leaves that create energy for growth, some of them are hiding secrets.

A tree's bark is its ultimate protective layer. And sometimes it's grey, boring and uninteresting.

But often a bark's beauty can be in its colour, texture or shape - and even the smallest garden can contain a shrub which will shine in winter by virtue of its bark features. So, let's head off out into the garden to take a closer look.

Bark is the outer layer of a tree, protecting it from weather, insects, bacteria and fungal infections, in some respects like skin protects the body.

Throughout the centuries humans have found great ways of using bark, for example in medicines. The anti-malarial quinine comes from the bark of the Cinchona tree and salicylic acid, the basis of aspirin, is found in willow bark.

The spice cinnamon is extracted from the Cinnamomum tree and tannin from hemlock trees was obtained to tan leather. Paper birch was harvested to cover canoes, chestnut bark for shingles to cover houses and cork stripped from the Cork oak (Quercus suber) is used in flooring or wine corks.

It can also be a source of food - the Adirondack tribes in the mountains of upstate New York used pine bark as part of their diet, 'Adirondack' translating as 'bark eaters'.

As gardeners, however, we are on the hunt for natural beauty, plants that we can enjoy, preferably all year round. Trees and shrubs with interesting bark will provide structure and focus in winter months and, when lit up by sunshine, can be just magical.

Looking out of my window, I see the white stems of Betula jacquemontii reflecting back a weak winter sun. This year I also planted tree ferns beside them and their distinctive furry reddish-brown trunks are forming a strong contrast.

If you're looking for a more compact white birch, you could try Moonbeam.

Acers which dazzle us with their autumnal colours often have beautiful coloured stems and bark as well. Japanese maples are slow growing and suitable for the smaller garden. Sango-kaku has coral red stems while Bihou has golden yellow stems - imagine them emerging from snow-covered ground.

Acer griseum, the paperbark maple, improves every year with age as it gently peels back ruffles of chestnut to reveal shiny deep orange bark underneath.

Prunus serrula also has very glossy bark that can remind you of polished mahogany.

Dogwood shrubs really come into their own in winter. Fully clothed they are unremarkable but when their bare stems are revealed, you can appreciate the vivid colour of their stems. Cornus alba Sibirica is the bright red one, Cornus flaviramae has yellow green stems - or for something different try Kesselringii which has blackish purple stems. Quite dramatic!

It's a great time of year to plant trees and shrubs and, because it is the dormant season, you can plant bare root trees. These are so much cheaper than their potted versions and will establish much faster.


Colourful companions - a copper bark cherry (Prunus serrula), dogwood (Cornus alba Sibirica) and the Chinese paperbark maple (Acer Griseum)

A perfect autumn at the RHS Gardens Wisley

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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 3, 2015
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