Flowers get all the attention, but don’t overlook the dramatic effect that decorative bark brings to a garden

Ornamentally barking up the right tree | James Wong | Life and style
‘A living tapestry of olive green, silvery grey and creamy white bark’: the Alpine snow gum’s mottled bark. Photograph: Gunter Ziesler/Getty Images

When it comes to picking out trees for small gardens, there are several attributes that jostle for top place on people’s wish lists: spring blossom, autumn colour and winter wildlife value to name just three. However, there is one spectacular feature guaranteed to delight the senses all year round that somehow rarely gets a mention, the dazzling colour and reach-out-and-grab-it texture of ornamental bark. With smart species choice and the right design technique, I believe bark can rival any other botanical feature for real wow factor, so here’s a beginner’s guide to doing just that.

Combining gorgeous mottled bark with glossy evergreen foliage, the South American arrayán tree Luma apiculata gives you the best of both worlds. The rusty orange outer bark has a unique powdery texture to it, revealing Friesian cow-like patches of striking, bluish-white young bark beneath as it peels away. But that’s not all. In the summer, clouds of white flowers decorate the branch tips to add a flash of seasonal interest. No wonder this resilient, fast-growing plant is the winner of an award of garden merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

To show off the bark to best effect, underplant these trees with a low carpet of ophiopogon. Its dark-green, grass-like leaves are just 30cm high and provide a good solid block of a contrasting colour, without having the height to obscure the lower branches.

It you like the sound of this combination of attributes, but are after something more exotic-looking, the Alpine snow gum Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp Niphophila might tempt you. Its branches are a living tapestry of olive green, silvery grey and creamy white bark. The pattern is constantly evolving as layers peel off. Add to this scented, sickle-shaped, silvery leaves and you will feel instantly transported to the Outback even on the darkest days of December.

Smaller and slower growing than other gum trees, this plant (like the arrayán) won’t swamp a small garden and will happily take pruning if needed. Hailing from high altitudes, it is one of the hardiest of the lot, meaning you should be able to get away with it even in colder, northern regions where other gum trees will fail. I like to train them as multi-stemmed specimens rather than the more predictable lollipop shape, as the more branches there are, the more bark there is to admire.

The fact that this also makes them look more natural and character-filled is a bonus. To do this, simply cut young trees hard down to ground-level once in spring in a process called pollarding, this will result in four or five smaller, thinning trunks springing up from below ground level to form a very different tree shape in adulthood.

In terms of texture, the tree with the most dramatic bark that can be grown on these islands has to be the paperbark maple from China. It is constantly shedding its “skin” of orangey-red bark, which peels off in translucent, chiffon-paper layers, these curl round like cinnamon sticks while still attached to the tree. Unlike the arrayán and snow gum, it can’t offer evergreen foliage, but it more than makes up for it with bold autumn colour when its mid-green leaves flush into a magical sunset of pinks and scarlet reds.

A thinning out of any congested, crossing branches will reveal the full glory of the bark beneath, but only do this when the trees are fully dormant in midwinter, as they can be prone to “bleeding” sap, which can weaken the plant at other times of the year.

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