Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: Bicolored tulips with an interesting tree bark as a background in a neighbor’s yard made an unforgettable combination. Barks can also cheer up a dreary winter garden.
Photo by Erica Browne Grivas: Bicolored tulips with an interesting tree bark as a background in a neighbor’s yard made an unforgettable combination. Barks can also cheer up a dreary winter garden.

Summer’s flowers and fall’s leaves have fallen away, and the winter garden reveals a new world of beauty wrought in bark.

Like a sepia photo, without color to jostle for our attention, texture jumps into relief.

If you pause a moment, there’s riveting pattern everywhere outside ­— mottled, gnarled, gleaming, striated and speckled. This often-overlooked element creates a springboard to rich plant combinations that can get you through the winter.

Among flashy barks, probably the most popular is the stark white paper birch (Betula papyrifera), so much so that people buy real and faux logs and branches for decoration indoor and out.

Native to the northeast, it’s a winter icon, but unfortunately has become susceptible to bronze birch borer recently in Seattle.  Alternatives include Himalayan birch (Betula utilis), which is white barked and grows 40 feet tall, and peachy tan river birch (Betula nigra), which comes in more compact varieties for urban gardens, like HERITAGE, featured in the Great Plant Picks website, https://www.greatplantpicks.org/.

The maples have many beautiful bark offerings, perhaps none more so than the paperbark maple (Acer griseum), which peels in layers from glossy cinnamon to olive and buff. To pump up the drama, find bark that contrasts with its plant partners or your house color.

Glossy evergreens can set off bark nicely, whether as a backdrop or a base. An unforgettable combination at a neighbor’s house last spring highlighted orange and red bicolor tulips framed by the mahogany bark. Luscious.

If the bark is colorful enough — like that of the “Pacific Fire” vine maple tree or some of the shrubby dogwoods (Cornus sericea and C. alba varieties) — it can hold its own against the ashiest Seattle sky.

Planted in community, red branches emit an ethereal haze that leavens stolid conifers and broad-leafed evergreens. Averaging about 8 feet tall and wide, these dogwoods take up some serious room. I had to remove a lovely Cornus “Bud’s Yellow” with lemon stems that was crowding its neighbors and sending up colonies. For smaller spaces, seek out “Artic Fire” (sunset orange, about 4 feet) or “Kelsey’s Dwarf” (crimson, 2 feet-ish). Trimmings can spice up winter container plantings.

At Blooms of Bressingham’s nursery in the United Kingdom, Adrian Bloom uses these bark superstars liberally in his renowned Winter Garden.

White birches erupt from purple winter heath, as an apricot dogwood fog hovers in the background.

There are so many choices to add texture and color to your garden’s views this time of year.

Cherry trees’ horizontal hash-marks look like some kind of calligraphy waiting to be decoded, and some, like Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula), shine in bronze tones. Stewartia and crepe myrtle sport mottled patches and drops, like a watercolor of a pond.

Willows (Salix spp.) can have lovely red, yellow or like my “Haruko Nishiki,” burgundy bark to complement its pink and white leaves.

More subtle, but no less striking, include shrubs like oakleaf or climbing hydrangea vine, known for peeling bark, or roses like Rosa glauca, with dusky burgundy bark.

In my garden, I designated a corner seen from the dining room window as my mini-winter garden — and the changing view cheers me for months.

Hellebores ground the scene with leathery evergreen foliage in inky blue-green punctuated now with white flowers.

Backed by a robust — some might say overgrown — “P.J.M.” rhododendron, Kerria japonica (which later will bring acid yellow spring flowers) lights up the edge now with a scramble of chartreuse stems echoing the buttery witch-hazel (Hamamelis) hybrid flowers.

While I wouldn’t call it pretty in the same way, in the foreground our venerable plum tree’s nubby aged bark and gnarled fingers make satisfying viewing, as the wrinkles and knots spell out its history and speak of years of harvests, jams and pass-by snacking. The winter landscape repays slower, introspective viewing, and it just gets more beautiful the closer you look.