Bark – it grows on trees you know

9th January 2021

Wonderful bark in winter

One of the best things about this time of the year is that you can see and appreciate the bark of trees more easily. Not all trees shed their leaves in winter, of course, but here in the UK most do. And it really is worth pausing sometimes when we have an opportunity to take a stroll outside, just to look more closely at the amazing variety of colours and textures that exist.
leaning tree trunk with golden bark
Bark can be golden and gorgeous.
Bark is a visible manifestation of a tree’s growth, more extensive each year as the tree grows from within and consequently becoming larger in girth each year. So every year there is a greater surface area of bark on any given tree.

From the spectacular grooved appearance of oak to the smooth surface of beech, from the black and white texture of silver birch to the dappled peeling texture of a London plane, artists have always been fascinated by the different barks and the appearance they present. Not only from close up but collectively from a distance too - the 19th century landscape artist John Constable being one very excellent example:
old painting by English master showing landscape with trees and valley
John Constable was a master at rendering the texture of barks (Dedham Vale, 1828)

Inner and outer bark

In terms of structure, there is an outer and an inner layer to bark. The outer one is obviously the part we see. It serves to protect the inner one and is usually quite firm. It's composed of a lifeless 'corky' sort of  material - whereas the inner bark is a vibrant layer that carries sugars and nutrients. The outer layer also protects the inner tree from water loss and acts as a shield to pests and diseases. It is in many respects the ‘skin’ of the tree.
close up of coarse bark on tree
Bark can be extremely coarse and fissured.

Useful for everyone

The huge variety of tree bark that we see depends on how the individual species of tree deals with the outer layer. Sometimes it discards it quickly as the inner bark grows and expands, leaving a smooth appearance, sometimes the bark stays putt longer and becomes cracked and fissured due to the pressure from the inner layer pushing outwards.

Whatever the cause of the bark’s appearance, each species has a distinct appearance and character, and experts can tell you the type of tree by inspecting its bark. And when the bark is especially rugged it provides a home for a rich variety of wildlife – harbouring all kinds of bugs and spiders and other wrigglies that provide a source of food for birds.

People too have always made use of bark. From its role in traditional forms of medicine to the making of corks for our wine bottles, it has always been a valuable and practical resource throughout history.
Even dogs are fond of bark for leaving behind little messages to one another whenever they visit a tree (note, this is not where the verb to 'bark' comes from).
exotic tree trunk with limbs, red and brown peeling bark
Exotic varieties can peel and reveal even great depth of colour.

Mosses and lichens

Bark can also support a wide range of fungi, mosses and lichens which are often extraordinarily lovely in their own right. Usually a sign of clean air, by the way, the degree to which moss flourishes on trees.
tree bark with thick layer of lichen, green in colour
Copper green lichen flourishing in abundance.
The coating of moss is at its most vigorous on the side illuminated least by the sun. So, for those of us in the northern hemisphere this will be the north-facing surface of the tree: an aid in regaining your bearings if you ever get lost at night in the woods (with all been there).
tree trunk covered in golden and white lichen
Even more spectacular in the sunshine.

Composite of colour and texture

Anyway, I thought I’d do a montage of some of the photos I’ve taken over the years of trees and their barks, mostly from walks in parks or gardens. I won’t trouble you with the names of them. I don’t know them all myself anyway. But they can be quite fascinating don’t you think? A blaze of colour and texture worthy of any artist's palette.
Composite image of various barks arranged in a circle, radiating from centre
Composite of barks.
I hope all this has encouraged you to take a more lingering glance every once in a while at the wonderful stuff that grows on trees. It's definitely something worth barking on about.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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