Trees with peeling bark are a unique addition to the garden. They offer more than just foliage and flowers. The color patterns and textures on their trunk and branches provide an additional interesting element to the garden. Trees with bark that peels are truly four-season plants, bringing a distinctive decorative feature to the garden throughout every month of the year. In this article, I’ll highlight 13 of my favorite trees with peeling bark, each with its own characteristic look and growth habit.
Trees with peeling bark aren’t always a sign of a problem
Let’s start by setting the record straight. Many people assume there is something wrong with a tree that has peeling bark. Yes, some trees may have peeling bark due to physical damage, an insect infestation, or environmental factors such as a lightning strike, sunscald, or frost damage (which I’ll discuss later), but the trees I’m focusing on in this article have bark that peels off naturally. It’s a physical trait that is programmed into the tree’s genetics.
Bark exfoliation can result in a wonderful opportunity to create a landscape focal point unlike any other. As you’ll see in the photos of the trees with peeling bark featured in this article, the shapes and forms created by this trait are pretty special.
Why do some trees have bark that peels off
Shedding bark occurs most often on the trunks of certain trees, but bark peel can also occur on smaller branches and twigs, depending on the plant species. Some trees with peeling bark shed their older bark in large chunks while others shed it in thin, papery sheets. In some species, the bark flakes off. For trees where peeling bark is a natural trait, there’s no need to worry about the health of your trees. The phloem that carries the sap through the plant just beneath the bark’s surface is performing its job just fine.
As trees grow, their bark thickens. The inner layers of bark are thin and soft, while the outermost bark consists of thick, dead tissue made up of old phloem and cork. The tree’s growth pushes the trunk outward and the bark cracks. This outer bark is then sloughed off to expose the inner layer of new bark. When older bark is shed from the tree’s exterior, new, healthy bark takes its place. Almost all trees naturally shed bark as they grow; some just do it more noticeably than others. Trees with bark that peels in a decorative fashion take the whole process to extremes. You might even say they’re a bit dramatic about it!
Meet the best trees with peeling bark
Here are some of my favorite trees with bark that peels in a decorative fashion. In each tree profile below, I’ll provide general growing information for the species along with interesting features about its appearance and growth habit. I split them into three categories based on their mature height: Large, medium, and small.
Small trees with peeling bark
Paperbark maple – Acer griseum
If you’re looking for a smaller tree with peeling bark, the paperbark maple is an excellent choice. It has a lovely spreading growth habit that forms an attractive canopy over the garden. The brown bark peels off in cinnamon-like sheets. Full sun is best. Hardy to -20°F, the leaves of this tree have an almost blue-gray cast. The growth rate is fairly slow which makes it wonderful for small spaces, and the papery peeling bark makes it a real home run.
Three-flower maple – Acer triflorum
Another modestly sized tree, the three-flower maple offers not just lovely fall color and a beautiful arching canopy, but also decorative bark that peels in shaggy sheets. Hardy to -20°F, the three-flower maple really shines in autumn and winter when its foliage turns a bright orangey-yellow. While the flowers are not conspicuous, it is definitely a tree worth growing.
Seven-sons flower tree – Heptacodium miconioides
The seven-sons flower is a small tree that sometimes has a growth habit more like a shrub. It produces cream to white flowers rich in fragrances from mid to late summer. After the petals drop from the blooms, the sepals turn bright pink which gives this tree a whole new look. The pale, tan-colored bark sheds in long strips and looks quite striking when the tree is situated against a dark background. This small tree with bark that peels requires full sun and is hardy to -20°F.
Crape myrtle – Lagerstroemia indica
Crape-myrtles are lovely deciduous shrubs that, when fully grown, are more like a small tree. Producing large, conical clusters of flowers in late summer to early fall, crape myrtles also boast exfoliating bark that sheds in long, slender strips. Any portion of the plant above the ground will die back in temperatures lower than 0°F, but the roots are hardy down to -10°F and will re-sprout with new growth upon spring’s arrival. Crape myrtles are wide spreading with multiple stems. There are many different varieties with flower colors ranging from pink to red, purple, lilac, and white.
Medium-sized trees with peeling bark
River birch – Betula nigra
When it comes to trees with peeling bark, birch trees sit on the king’s throne. The white bark of these North American native trees has been used by indigenous cultures to make baskets and canoes. River birch in particular is a wonderful ornamental member of the birch family, with the cultivar ‘Heritage’ being among the most popular. The attractive bark exfoliates year-round, sloughing off in curled sheets. With foliage that turns a lovely yellow in the winter, these trees top out at 40 feet in height and are hardy to -30°F.
China Snow™ Peking lilac – Syringa pekinensis ‘Morton’
If you’re looking for a tree that not only has exfoliating bark but also boasts a rounded growth habit and lovely flowers, the China Snow Peking lilac is your new BFF. Its medium-sized stature means it tops out at 40 feet in height. The fragrant, white flowers occur in late spring and are attractive to many different insect pollinators and even hummingbirds. Fully hardy to -20°F, the rich brown bark peels in circular strips around the diameter of the trunk.
Lacebark pine – Pinus bungeana
This medium-sized tree has peeling bark that looks like camouflage, with a mixture of brown, tan, and green. The lacebark pine is a lovely specimen. It’s a needled evergreen which means it offers interest to the garden from both its foliage and its bark. Like most of the other trees with peeling bark on this list, lacebark pine thrives in full sun. It’s very cold hardy, surviving temperatures down to -30°F.
Japanese Stewartia – Stewartia pseudocamellia
The Japanese stewartia is another medium-height tree with bark that peels. It offers four-season interest in a low-maintenance package. Stewartias produce showy white camellia-like flowers in mid summer, and their foliage turns a brilliant orange-red in the autumn. A great choice for full sun to part shade. The exfoliating bark is reddish-brown, lending good color and interest to the winter landscape. It maxes out at 30 feet after many years of growth and is hardy to -20°F.
Large trees with peeling bark
Shagbark hickory – Carya ovata
Shagbark hickories need a lot of room, but if you have the space, they won’t disappoint. With a tall, straight trunk that tops out at 80 feet, this North American native tree has bark that peels off in long, curved “slices”, lending a shaggy appearance to the tree. The nuts this member of the walnut family produces are edible and quite delicious. Hardy to -30°F, shagbark hickories provide year-round interest and they support a lot of wildlife.
Dawn redwood – Metasequoia glyplostroboides
A fast-growing tree that tops out at 70 feet in height (sometimes more), the dawn redwood has fern-like foliage that is soft and feathery. While it may look like an evergreen, it is in fact deciduous, dropping all of its foliage in the late autumn. A native of Asia, this tree requires full sun and is hardy to -30°F. Its bark comes off in long strips of rusty brown. While the bark shedding isn’t as decorative as some other trees with peeling bark, the large, conical shape of this tree makes it a real winner.
Lacebark elm – Ulmus parvifolia
Also known as the Chinese elm, the lacebark elm is my favorite of all the trees with peeling bark. The bark is unusually mottled with the appearance of a bright camouflage. It’s considered large because it tops out at 40 to 50 feet in height, but it is fairly slow growing. Winter is the prime season of interest for this beautiful tree with bark that drops off in chunks. With a rounded growth habit and a hardiness down to -20°F, it also exhibits good resistance to Dutch elm disease.
Sycamore – Platanus occidentalis
The American sycamore and its close relative, the London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) which is a hybrid cross between the North American native sycamore and the Asian planetree, are two other great trees prized for their peeling bark. Sycamores and the London plane tree are very large trees, reaching a mature height of 80 to 100 feet. Their broad, maple-like leaves and fuzzy seed balls are a hallmark that’s recognizable to many. The peeling bark causes the trunk to be randomly patterned with shades of brown, cream, and green. Some people consider the tree to be “messy” because of the constantly shedding bark.
Black cherry – Prunus serotina
One final selection in the large trees with peeling bark category is the black cherry. A North American native that’s extremely hardy (down to -40°F!), its bark peels off in thick, scale-like chunks but only when the tree is mature. Give this tree lots of room as it extends 80 feet into the sky. White, elongated flower clusters in spring are followed by tiny black fruits that are enjoyed by birds but are inedible to humans unless cooked into jams or jellies. The leaves are a larval food source for many butterflies.
When peeling bark signals a problem
If you see significant bark shedding from trees when it is not supposed to be a natural part of their development, it could signal a problem, especially if you also see damaged or wilting leaves in conjunction with the peeling bark. Early leaf drop or dieback in the tree’s crown can signal problems like cankers and wood-boring insects. Long vertical cracks in bark, particularly on the south or southwest side of certain trees, may be the result of frost cracking, a condition where the excessive heat of strong sun in the wintertime causes the sap to expand and contract too quickly, resulting in the bark splitting open.
Trees damaged by string trimmers and lawn mowers can also have shedding bark, particularly at their base. If this bark loss exposes too much bare wood, the tree could become girdled and die.
One quick note about the presence of mosses and lichen on a tree. Many people worry that the presence of these two organisms on a tree’s bark will cause it to peel off, bringing eventual death to the tree, but that is not the case. Moss and lichen use trees as a place to anchor, but they do not damage them. Nor do they feed on the tree. Neither of these organisms have roots the extend into the tree’s tissue. Instead, they stick to the bark’s surface like glue. Their presence will not harm your tree.
The power of the peel
Decoratively peeling bark can be an interesting feature that extends a tree’s offerings far beyond their shady canopy, flowers, fruits, and fall color. Peeling bark makes a powerful statement in the landscape, particularly in the winter when there’s not a lot of other interesting plant features strutting their stuff. I hope you’ll include a few trees with peeling bark in your yard or garden so you too can enjoy the power of the peel.
For more on great trees for your landscape, please visit the following articles:
- Narrow trees for small spaces
- Trees with white flowers
- The best flowering trees of all sizes
- When is the right time to plant trees?
- 14 types of weeping trees