Birch tree bark

An ode to bark

Tree bark can be found in a wide variety of colors, thicknesses, textures, and utility. It is good to take some time to appreciate the “skin” of our trees.

This is the time of year that my appreciation for tree bark is reignited.  Framed by blue skies and snow and uncluttered by leaves, the uniqueness and beauty of bark truly stands out in winter.  We often don’t give it much thought, but bark adds a great deal to our forests and our society.

As a part of the aesthetic appeal of trees, bark is the subtle textures that backdrop the rest of the forest.  Think about oak with its deep furrows, beech with its smoothness, balsam fir with its resin blisters, or basswood with its vertical furrows.  Then there are the variety of colors that abound like the whites and coppers of birch, the red/grey of red pine, the nearly blacks of cherry, and the mottled colors of sugar maple.

Now consider some of the more extravagant barks like the diamond-patterned ash, the peeling and curling birch, the burnt cornflake look of cherry, or the haggard looking hackberry.  These will quickly draw your eye and you can see them from quite the distance.

Additionally, I marvel at how bark changes as the tree ages.  From the smooth and fragile nature that is common among saplings and small poles to the rough texture in older trees.  This is especially true in aspen where you can see the change taking place as the roughness creeps up the stem.  And white pine where you can scratch the bark off with your fingernail when young and how it can be an inch and a half thick when mature.

And then I remember that what seems like just dead armor is in fact living tissue.  The inner most layer of bark is actually growing outwards creating new bark to replace the old.  Another inner layer, called the phloem, transports the sugars produced in the leaves down to the roots.  However, the dead tissues are the ones we see and they protect the tree from water loss and insects, diseases, fire, hail, and other damaging agents.

Finally, like other parts of the tree, bark has and has had a myriad of uses.  Many cultures have used bark for practical things like tools, clothing, food and the creation of containers like baskets.  We currently use bark as mulch for our gardens, as a source for medicines, and as a fuel for heating our homes.  Researchers are constantly exploring the different ingredients in bark for the next aspirin or cancer treatment drug.

My personal uses for bark are simple (as a cover for my firewood pile and as fuel), but my appreciation for it is quite profound.   Take a moment the next time you are in the woods to marvel at this wonderful part of our trees.