The Beauty of Bark

Bark can be one of the most beautiful aspects of a tree. When you walk through the woods or through a garden, it is usually what you see at eye level. Every tree species has its own unique bark, offering different colors, patterns and textures, some quite mundane and inconspicuous to the untrained eye, while others are a piece of precious art, giving the viewer an easy means to recognize the species. 

In my travels, I get to see a lot of plants, but it is a special joy to visit a garden with a diversity of mature trees - even better if they are labeled. I always stop to photograph them, particularly their leaves and bark, but it is the bark diversity that fascinates me the most. Andrew Bunting, a old friend with whom I interned with at the Chicago Botanic Garden, got me in the habit of noticing and photographing tree bark. He had written an article on bark in some magazine and had accompanied it with a series of beautiful pictures. "How beautiful," I thought, and shortly thereafter I started shooting bark. I don't see Andrew all that often anymore (he is now working at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and I'm in Michigan or off traveling the world), but each time I take a photograph of bark, I think of him. 

As children we are taught in school to learn the trees by their leaves. Who hasn't made a leaf collection as elementary school project? But leaves are often hard to view on large mature trees until they fall. The leaves of a species or cultivar can also be quite deceiving. Think of all the plant names that end with the Latin word for leaf, -folium, such as Acer carpinifolium and Viburnum acerfolium. There must be a hundred different leaf shapes in Acer palmatum. Bark gives us one more clue when identifying a tree or shrub, so get to know your bark. You'll find it quite useful when walking in the woods in the winter months. 

Below are 25 diverse images of tree bark, and they're not is any particular order. Some are easy to recognize, while others are a bit more challenging. See if you can identify them on your own. Then try matching them up with a list of names provided. How'd you do? Share this post with your friends and cohorts to test their tree and bark knowledge. It's kind of enjoyable, at least for me, but then again, I'm a bit of a plant nerd. Enjoy.       

Scroll down below the pictures see the plant list and even further to see the answers.





















Twenty One

Twenty Two

Twenty Three

Twenty Four

Twenty Five


Acer griseum - paperbark maple
Ailanthus altissina - tree of heaven
Alnus incana - European gray alder
Arbutus menziesii - Pacific madrone or madrona
Betula alleghaniensis - yellow birch
Betula papyrifera - paper or canoe birch
Carpinus betulus - European hornbeam 
Carya illinoinensis - hardy pecan
Castanea dentata - American chestnut
Cornus florida - Eastern Dogwood
Davidia involucrata - dove tree
Diospyros virginiana - American persimmon 
Fagus grandifolia - American beech 
Gymnocladus dioicus - Kentucky coffee tree
Lagerstroemia x 'Natchez' - Natchex crapemyrtle
Pinus bungeana - lacebark pine
Prunus serrula - Himalayan birch bark cherry  
Robinia pseudoacacia - black locust
Sequoiadendron gigantieum - Giant Sequoia 
Stachyurus praecox - stachyrus shrub 
Stewartia pseudocamellia - Japanese stewartia 
Syringa vulgaris - common lilac
Taxodium distichum - bald cypress
Tilia americana - basswood or American linden
Zelkova serrata - Japanese zelkova

Scroll down ever further, if you wish to view the answers with clues for remembering them.

1     Betula papyrifera - paper or canoe birch - WHITE PAPER
2     Ailanthus altissina - tree of heaven - STRETCHED SKIN
3    Taxodium distichum - bald cypress- FLUTED
4    Tilia americana - basswood or American linden EVEN BASKET WEAVE
5     Lagerstroemia x 'Natchez' - Natchex crapemyrtle  ARTISTIC BEAUTY
6     Betula alleghaniensis - yellow birch - SILVER PAPER
7     Alnus incana - European gray alder - FORGETTABLE GREY
8     Arbutus menziesii - Pacific madrone or madrona BEAUTIFUL CREAM AND RED
9     Syringa vulgaris - common lilac ANGULAR NARROW RIDGES
10   Robinia pseudoacacia - black locust COURSE BASKET WEAVE
11   Stewartia pseudocamellia - Japanese stewartia  ARTISTIC BEAUTY
12   Pinus bungeana - lacebark pine  - PATCHY
13   Castanea dentata - American chestnut SMOOTH IRREGULAR PATCHES
14   Carya illinoinensis - hardy pecan TIGHT BASKET WEAVE
15   Zelkova serrata - Japanese zelkova CHUNKY PATCHES 
16   Carpinus betulus - European hornbeam SMOOTH
17   Cornus florida - Eastern Dogwood - ALLIGATOR BARK 
18   Acer griseum - paperbark maple - RED PAPER
19   Davidia involucrata - dove tree IRREGULAR FLAKES
20   Diospyros virginiana - American persimmon - THE HULK
21   Sequoiadendron gigantieum - Giant Sequoia - SOFT RED PILLOW
22   Stachyurus praecox - stachyrus shrub LINEAR SMOOTH AND ROUGH 
23   Gymnocladus dioicus - Kentucky coffee tree - LONG FIXED FLAKES
24   Fagus grandifolia - American beech - SILVER, OFTEN CARVED
25   Prunus serrula - Himalayan birch bark cherry - RED GLOSSY

On the Road Again

It's that time of year when I go out and about giving plant talks. I thought I would give you an update on when and where I will be speaking. In other words this post is an unabashed attempt at self promotion so that my audience will be greater than six people (it's happened). 

You won't have to travel far to hear me speak on behalf of the WNLA as I will be presenting a Webinar on Wednesday November 28th at 1:00 pm eastern / 12:00 central time. Join me as we explore the impact of boxwood blight on the future of the nursery and landscape industry and as we take a look at some of the best alternative shrubs that can fill the same niche as box. Sign up Today.

 What will become of this family of boxwood?  

Not just one plant geek, but twelve all in the same room

Please join me at the SNA Conference in Baltimore on Tuesday, January 8th. I will be presenting a new talk called "Breakthrough Plant Breeding in Flowering Shrubs." where we will explore a series of unique plant introductions that have changed the way we garden and landscape.Cool stuff right?  

The SNA Conference is a two day, rapid fire plant geek fest just before the MANTS show, so come a bit early to hear the greatest line up plant geeks every assembled. If not for me, come and hear Buddy Lee "the inventor of Encore Azaleas," author and plant geek Paul Cappiello, Mr. Tree Man himself - Keith Warren, Natalia Hamill - the First Lady of new plants and your Ragin' Cajun plantsman extraordinaire Todd Lasseigne. It is a must attend event for all plant geeks, so be there, or be normal, it's your choice.  

A bit closer to home, I will be giving a talk in Lansing, Michigan at the  2019 Great Lakes Trade Exposition.  

"Shrubs that Will Change the Way we Landscape" is the title of the talk I will be presenting on January 29th at 4:15 pm. 

It used to be that shrubs were the bones and background of the garden. They were big plants, that bloomed for two weeks or less and then they faded into oblivion. All that has changed. Plant breeders the world over have reinvented the shrub and with that, the way we used them in our gardens and landscapes. This talk will highlight some of the most interesting breakthroughs in plant breeding and how designers can use them to make better gardens and landscapes. 

Oh So Popular!

One plant at a time, Proven Winners has become oh so popular!

On February 7th I will be speaking in Cincinnati, OH at the 2019 Tri-State Green Industry Conference.  The Tri-State Green Industry Conference is a collaborative effort between Ohio State University Extension, Purdue Extension, University of Kentucky Extension, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum, Boone County Arboretum and the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. Whoa - that's a lot of collaboration!

The title of my talk will be "Proven Winners - What has driven our success." The topic was suggested by my friend Scott Beuerlein of the Cincinnati Zoo. I've not yet written the talk, but I think it will be interesting. Proven Winners has a remarkable story and I am fortunate to have been a part of its growth and evolution. You'll have to attend to find out if the talk is any good or not. Click here to learn more.  

MSU - The birth place of modern horticulture

My good friend Mary Wilson of the Michigan State University Extension Service is a badger (a Wisconsin Badger). She insisted that speak at her Plants of Distinction conference in Novi, Michigan. How could I say no? Rumor has it that David Culp and my friend and fellow Spartan Matthew Ross of Longwood Gardens will me join me on February 13th for this event. If you are in the area come on over and catch my talk "The Hunt for New Hydrangeas." You'll everything and more about Hydrangeas and how to grow them. I hope to see you there!

That's me in a wild patch of Hydrangea in Japan

Last, but of not least, I will be appearing at the Devos Place in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Saturday March 2nd. My friend and fellow Spartan Rebecca Finneran booked me for the Michigan State University Extension Smart Gardening Conference. How could I turn down the nicest person in horticulture? I will be speaking about "Smart Shrubs", the ones that make our lives better, easier and more joyful. Better than an iPhone, these smart shrubs will amaze you, so mark you calendar and join me in Beer City USA for this special event. 

Have a great Thanksgiving holiday! We all have so many reasons to be thankful. I am especially thankful that I work in such a great industry, with such friendly and interesting people. Plant people are special. They notice and appreciate the small miracles that happen all around us, every day. I am also very grateful and appreciative to those of you that read my blog. Thank you and thumbs up to you my fellow plant hunters!     

Two thumbs up plant talks

Pretty. Powerful.

Unfortunately, we all know someone who's been touched by breast cancer. For me, it was my mom. I was about twelve or thirteen years old when she was diagnosed, and back in the early seventies the treatment options were not all that good. She survived, but it changed her and changed me as well. So when I found the opportunity to help fund breast cancer research through my work with Proven Winners, I was all in. I saw it as a great opportunity to get the entire nursery and garden center industry involved in a cause worth supporting. It's Pretty. It's Powerful. Take a moment and watch this video.  

Thank you for watching the video. Now ask yourself what you can do. It might be as little as sharing this blog post with your friends on Facebook, buying your mom an Invincibelle Spirit II hydrangea, or making a small donation to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

Or it could be something bigger. You decide. Individual actions can grow and become pretty...powerful. 

More about the campaign at 

Boxwood Alternatives

Boxwood, because of its functionality and deer resistance, is one of the most utilized landscape plants in the world. Unfortunately, boxwood blight, a lethal disease caused by the fungus Calonectria pseudonaviculatum, is threatening this iconic shrub. The disease, well established in Europe, has crossed the big pond and is now killing boxwood in North America. 

In the fall of 2011, boxwood blight was detected in North Carolina and Connecticut. Since then, it has been found in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. The fungus is spread by the transport of infected plants, and from infected plants to healthy plants via hedge shears, animals, and human touch. It is a slow but methodical spread that continues to widen. With that spread, plant breeders and researchers have been working to solve this problem.

One of the simplest solutions is to use alternative plants that have the same utility as boxwood but are unaffected by the disease. Two species that have the greatest potential to be suitable boxwood substitutes are Ilex crenata, Japanese holly and Ilex glabra, inkberry holly. Both have small, broad, evergreen leaves and dense branching that responds well to being sheared into hedges, globes, and spires. 


Inkberry or inkberry holly is an Eastern North American native evergreen that is hardy in zones 5-9. Typically it is a large plant maturing at 5 to 6 feet in height. It grows best in moist acid soils, but is adaptable to most average garden soils. Rutgers University lists it as moderately deer resistant, being seldom severely damaged by deer. There are a number of cultivars on the market that are more compact than typical; however, most have a tendency to lose their leaves on the lower portion of the plant with age. Recently two new selections have been introduced that look and behave much more like boxwood.

The first selection is called Gem Box® Ilex glabra 'SMNIGAB17'. This plant was developed at Spring Meadow Nursery. Hundreds of seedlings were grown out and field evaluated over a ten year time frame. Any plants that developed bare stems were eliminated from the trial. In addition, plants that had winter burn or that were damaged by snow load were also destroyed. With time, and the destruction of many plants, about a dozen individuals were selected, propagated, and trialed again both in containers and in the field. The very best of these plants was eventually chosen and introduced in the spring of 2015 under the name Gem Box. The demand for Gem Box was so large that Spring Meadow had to hold off a year on shipping to build up a larger stock block. In 2016, thirty thousand plants were shipped to growers. By spring of 2018, the sales jumped to just under 100,000 plants, and a good number more could have been sold if only there had been more plants. Obviously, there is a huge demand for a good boxwood alternative. 

Gem Box® inkberry has extremely dense branching, small glossy leaves, but most importantly, it retains its lower foliage, making it an excellent replacement for boxwood. In the spring, with the initial flush of growth, the foliage exhibits an attractive cast of reddish-burgundy coloration. In the spring, if you look closely, you will find that it has small white flowers, and if you have a male pollinator near by, you will also get small black fruit later in the summer. Neither the flowers or the fruit are very noticeable. While the plants are naturally dense and rounded in habit, it responds wonderfully to pruning and can be sheared in globes or hedges with round or squared off edges. 


This spring, another inkberry boxwood substitute will be available to growers. This selection, called Strong Box® Ilex glabra 'Ilexfarrowtracey', was developed by Mike Farrow of Maryland. We trialed this variety in our test field for over five years and we were very impressed with its dense habit, dark green foliage, and superb winter hardiness. It has larger leaves than Gem Box® and a more mounded habit, making it quite distinct. The foliage is thick and dense even on the lower branches. 

And now for something completely different: Juke Box® ×Pyracomeles is one of my favorite boxwood alternatives. This remarkable new broadleaf evergreen could easily be mistaken for a boxwood. 

Juke Box® sheared into a ball looks a lot like a boxwood

This new plant comes without the threat of boxwood blight because it is an intergeneric hybrid between Pyracantha and OsteomelesIt had no thorns, no flowers and like a boxwood, can be sheared and shaped as desired. It reminds me of a 'Morris Midget' boxwood but with much faster growth. This new plant comes from Dr. Tom Ranney of North Carolina State University.


When left unpruned, it forms a thick, mounded evergreen mat, but with a little bit of shearing, it can be formed into a ball, box, or a low hedge.

Initially I did not think this plant was going to be hardy in Michigan and based on the parents, I listed it as a zone 7 plant. We have now overwintered it successfully in our test field for three years and it has not missed a beat. It is certainly hardy to zone 6 and perhaps zone 5b. 

While plant pests and diseases can be disruptive, they can also force us to think creatively and can bring new opportunities. There are so many beautiful and useful plant species in the world, so we have lots of choices. When it comes to replacing boxwood these three selections fit the niche. 

Well, I've got to catch a plane to England. So many plants and gardens to see. I'll let you know what I find when I get back. Cheerio!  


The Journey of Physocarpus - Eastern Ninebark

Physocarpus opulifolius, the Eastern ninebark, is a tough, hardy, adaptable native shrub that can be found growing here in Michigan along the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. According to the USDA, the species can be found growing as far south as Florida and as far west as Colorado. With the exception of native restoration projects, you don't normally see this species cultivated - unless it is a cultivar with colorful leaves.

The native range of Physocarpus opulifolius, Eastern ninebark
If you were to look back about twenty five years into the past, you'd basically have two cultivars of Physocarpus to choose from, both with gold foliage. One was a Dutch selection called 'Dart's Gold', and the other an American selection named 'Nugget'. We have trialed both of these plants in our test garden and while the two plants are quite similar, I have to give the nod to 'Dart's Gold' as the better plant. 'Dart's Gold' has a nicer habit, holds its yellow foliage longer into the summer and has shown less susceptibility to powdery mildew. Powdery mildew can be problematic with Physocarpus, and our test garden has some ideal locations for encouraging mildew and so is a great place to evaluate resistance.

Physocarpus 'Dart's Gold'

Physocarpus 'Nugget'
Roughly twenty years ago, something quite unexpected happened. In Germany, a seedling grower discovered a single Physocarpus plant in his field that had dark burgundy leaves. How or why this happened, nobody knows. The grower shared it with his friend Holger Hachmann, a well-known Rhododendron and Ilex (holly) breeder. Holger put it into his display garden where Gunter Kordes, a German shrub grower, noticed it and recognized its commercial value. Together they introduced it as 'Diabolo', (the German name for child's spinning top). When it was introduced in the United States by Monrovia, the name was changed to Diablo® (cv. ‘Monlo’ PP 11,211) giving a nod to its unique dark red foliage. This was a seminal moment in the world of ornamental Physocarpus

Physocarpus 'Diabolo'
Diablo was an instant hit in the gardening world with thousands, if not millions, of plants
sold worldwide. But the story does not end there. Diablo had a few shortcomings that needed to be addressed. First off, it's a very large shrub, reaching 12-15' in height, making it much too large for most residential gardens. It's also susceptible to powdery mildew which turns its dark red foliage into an eyesore. And lastly, it has a tendency to revert, sending up green shoots every now and then. Recognizing both its potential and shortcomings, I crossed this dark leafed plant with a dwarf, green cultivar called 'Nana'. By using the green-leafed 'Nana' as the mother and the red-leafed Diablo as the father, I knew immediately that any burgundy seedlings were true crosses between the two plants. The result was the introduction of Summer Wine® Physocarpus (cv. 'Seward' pp#14821). This selection solved this mildew issue. It reduced the size of the plant down to a manageable six to eight feet, and the reversion issue disappeared. In addition, Summer Wine was blessed with a graceful, cascading habit and abundant flowers produced up and down the the length of the stems. But the story continues.   
Summer Wine® physocarpus in a decorative container

Around the same time, our friends at Minier Nursery in France planted Diablo in their trial garden next to 'Dart's Gold'. Within a few years, they discovered a chance seedling that was obviously a cross between the two plants. They shared it with us and we introduced it as Coppertina® because of its beautiful, orange-copper foliage.  

Copperina® ninebark

Soon after, others got into the Physocarpus breeding game and scads of Diablo crosses were rushed to market in the US and overseas. Burgundy Star, Center Glow, Angel, Ruby Spice, Red Baron, Royalty, Mahogany Magic, Obsidian, Amber, Black Jack, Barberone, Little Devil, Sweet Cherry Tea, and Raspberry Lemonade are just a few of the cultivars that flooded the market.  Meanwhile, at Spring Meadow, we continued to breed Physocarpus, but for a number of years we introduced nothing. Every time we thought we had unique new selection, powdery mildew reared its ugly head. While the plants looked great at first, after three or four years of trialing, mildew became an issue. What else could we do but destroy the plants and continue to breed? We trialed many of the selections listed above, but they too had mildew issues. To make matters worse, we started getting reports that people were having mildew issues with Coppertina®. 
Finally, with time and persistence, we hit the mark. We developed a dark-leafed, dwarf variety with a high level of mildew resistance and introduced it as Tiny Wine® (Physocarpus 'SMPOTW' pp#26,749). This petite ninebark has burgundy foliage, richly colored pink flower buds and attractive red fall color.     

Tiny Wine® ninebark

Tiny Wine® ninebark fall color

Through the same breeding line we were able to come up with a gold version of Tiny Wine® that was naturally named Tiny Wine® Gold (Physocarpus 'SMPOTWG' pp#28,857). What really impressed us about this plant was how well it looked in a container. Most Physocarpus selections do not flower well as a young plant, so you don't get many flowers on a one or three gallon plant. Tiny Wine® Gold is unique in that it flowers like crazy, even as a young plant. 

Field trials of Tiny Wine® Gold inspected by Dale Deppe.

Exceptionally floriferous as a young plant, Tiny Wine® Gold makes a great container plant.

With time, we were also able to come up with a replacement for Coppertina® which we named Ginger Wine™ (Physocarpus 'SMNPOBLR ppaf). It had the mildew resistance that we were looking for and the brightest orange foliage we had ever seen. Add to that orange-red seed capsules and we had a real beauty. 

Ginger Wine® is an improved, orange, mildew resistant variety that replaces Coppertina®
Ginger Wine™ remained mildew-free in our trials

Seed capsule display on Ginger Wine™

Over the years we came up with a number of very beautiful selections with dark black foliage. Some of the breeders we work with also brought us remarkable plants with dark black foliage. We came very close to introducing a few of these black-leafed selections, only to pull them back at the last minute due to mildew issues. It seemed like the darker the foliage, the greater the susceptibility to mildew. This could be the case, or it could be that the back foliage make it easier to see the light grey mildew infections. Regardless, the hunt for a good black-leafed ninebark was a lot like searching for a unicorn. Pretty much impossible!  

Evaluating for mildew susceptibility and resistance is essential.  

After growing out and destroying hundreds of potential black-leafed plants, we had pretty much given up on the black unicorn. But finally we found it. Summer Wine® Black will be introduced to the trade this spring. It is a compact plant with attractive, dark black, glossy foliage. It's not a strong blooming plant, and so it will be grown primarily for its clean, dark, glossy foliage and compact habit. But finally we had a truly black leafed selection worthy of introduction.     

Field trials of Summer Wine Black™.

Summer Wine® Black container trials show clean foliage and a well-branched habit.

I find it fascinating to look back on the journey of Physocarpus from native to ornamental. The story starts in the United States and moves to Europe, but returns home again. What were the odds of finding that one naturally occurring, red-leafed seedling in a field in Germany? I think about all the plant breeders that made hundreds of crosses and sowed out thousands upon thousands of seedlings looking for one worthy plant. I think about the years of trials and testing needed to verify a truly dwarf selection and the time it took to tame the the powdery mildew problem. And now the story comes to our present time. We have a range of really good landscape plants with attractive black, orange, red, and yellow foliage. We have useful dwarf selections in burgundy and gold. Colorful and easy to grow, these new ninebark selections are ready to provide food and shelter for songbirds and season-long color for our gardens. It's been a long and arduous journey, but so much has been accomplished in just twenty five years. I doubt the Physocarpus story ends here. New and better plants will be developed. We are still making crosses and evaluating fields of seedlings. What other surprises are hidden in the genes of this native shrub? Only time will tell.