Carolyn Singer: Hidden beauty: The winter landscape |

Carolyn Singer: Hidden beauty: The winter landscape

Carolyn Singer
Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) has gray bark that can brighten a winter landscape.
Photo by Carolyn Singer |

Deciduous shade trees and evergreens, natives and non-natives, flowering or fruiting, trees large and small define our landscapes.

Selected for mature height and width, for color in bloom, for fragrance, even for the shape of the leaf, and certainly for fall color, a broad range of trees does well in our foothill climate.

But the one characteristic that is seldom mentioned is the texture and color of the bark.

In winter this may be the most dominant feature, even adding a focal point to the landscape.

As trees age, the bark on the majestic trunk is highly visible when we stand near a venerable specimen.

More than once I have stopped in my tracks when walking near an old tree, drawn to its beauty. Height is impressive, but better viewed at a distance.

Up close, the bark of the tree often has so much detail that I am captivated. The colors of bark range through shades of brown and gray, and even gold.

I once read a line in a novel by western writer Wallace Stegner where he describes the native ponderosa pine as having purple bark.

I was inspired by his words to look again.

Appreciating the patterns of bark

With consistent winter rains the bright green of moss often appears on the north side of a trunk.

Slow down and take a look. Surrounded by a beautiful native landscape, you won’t have to go far for this “hidden” winter beauty.

The common ponderosa pine has bark with tones of gray and brown. I see streaks of golden brown. The pattern of bark on my oldest tree looks like a jigsaw puzzle, creating beautiful shadows on a sunny day and contrasts of light and dark when the bark is wet from rains.

Less common, the Sierra redwood has strongly vertical patterns to its bark.

An old trunk is ridged, dominant sections alternating with narrow, deeper lines that always seem to be in shadow. I had the lowest branches removed to expose this handsome trunk. Old cedars appear to have bark overlapping in sections.

Our striking native madrone has a trunk of rich mahogany. Exfoliating (peeling) bark adds to the beauty. The paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has a similar trunk color and texture, although the peeling bark is more dominant. Snow may be caught in the bark after a storm, sculpting a beautiful winter feature in those gardens fortunate to have this rare maple.

Some trees in my garden have mottled bark, a random pattern of darker patches on a lighter background. This variation may not be visible except upon close inspection. Place a tree with this fine detail near a path or next to a garden bench.

Gray bark brightens the winter landscape. Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) is one of my favorite small trees. It is quite different from the large evergreen magnolia that is more common.

Gray bark year round is a strong feature. In the winter months the gray branches have buds that resemble pussy-willows, each bud the promise of a creamy white fragrant flower in early spring.

The chaste tree (Vitx agnus-castus) at the Cedar Ridge Post Office causes quite a stir when its dynamic blue flowers burst into bloom in late summer.

In winter the flowers have faded to interesting seed pods which will be pruned off to encourage more flowering this coming summer. Whether this excellent small tree is pruned or unpruned, the gray bark on the trunk and branches is now the highlight.

Winter provides an opportunity to discover more of the hidden beauty that surrounds us.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom,” and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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