form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care

Trunk Show


Lagerstroemia fauriei

This Japanese crape myrtle at the Raulston Arboretum doesn’t need to be in flower to attract attention

We are known to wax poetic at Form and Foliage over the joys of, well, form and foliage.  Most of the time, that means that we show you gorgeous woody plants and their leaves, with a generous sprinkling of ornaments such as cones and berries.  Now, however, we’d like to direct your attention to a part of the plant that tends to get short shrift in garden photography, and in our view contributes much to a tree’s eye appeal: the trunk.

Quarryhill Botanical Garden

Acer griseum is commonly called paperbark maple and it is easy to see why

In fact, there are some trees, such as this paper bark maple (Acer griseum) photographed at Quarryhill Botanical Garden, that would be worth having even if they remained leafless!  The paper bark maple actually has very nice leaves, albeit not the most dramatic.  But the peeling bark adds texture and interest to the garden all year long.

strawberry tree

Arbutus ‘Marina’ is generally in a multi-stemmed form to get as much mileage from those trunks as possible

Another tree with peeling bark is Arbutus ‘Marina’, a hybrid cultivar of our native California madrone.  The young trees have semi-gloss, cinnamon bark that, when it ages, breaks open to display a chartreuse under-layer.  The evergreen leaves, flowers and fruit of this tree are all stunning, but the trunk is the attention-grabber.

Physocarpus Coppertina

We chose this ninebark Coppertina for its coppery leaves, but now we’re in love with the trunk

While we’re on the subject of peeling, let’s look at Physocarpus, a shrub whose trunk peels with such abandon that its common name is ninebark. We’ve never counted the layers, but we make a point of pruning this shrub to showcase the lovely textured trunk.  Like Arbutus ‘Marina’, ninebark has beautiful leaves (in colors that range from gold and lime to copper and maroon), flowers and berries.

California redwood, coast redwood

The branches on these 25 year old redwoods are now far above our heads, so we focus on the trunks

Not all trunks have to be burlesque strippers to command attention, however.  Some do it simply with grandeur and presence.  The redwood crown provides shade but the trunk adds sculptural and textural interest, as well as rich color that deepens in the winter rains.

Olea wilsonii, fruitless olive trees

Olive trees are one of the best selections for interesting trunks

Some trees, such as olives, are known for their naturally occurring intriguing, twisted shapes, which can be enhanced by careful pruning.  The tree on the right is showcasing the characteristic knobby protuberances that develop as the trees age. These olives were planted as small trees about 12 years ago, primarily for shade, but now also serve as sculpture.

Olea wilsonii, Arbutus 'Marina', Quercus agrifolia

A trunk trifecta of olives, Abutus ‘Marina’ and an ancient live oak

In this trunk trifecta, the olive trunks in the foreground are echoed by the cinnamon trunk of Arbutus ‘Marina’ in the middle and that of the aged live oak (Quercus agrifolia) in the rear. Color, texture, shape—these trunks have it all! And as we remind you repeatedly, they don’t hibernate in winter.

David's maple, Quarryhill Botanical Garden

An enormous Acer davidii at Quarryhill dominates its location with its strong trunk and lovely bark

This David’s maple is less than 25 years old and serves as a sculpture—and a bench!—in the woodland landscape of Quarryhill Botanical Garden.  It stands out against the surrounding thicket and provides plenty of interest, even when bare of foliage.

The Oregon Garden

Japanese larch ‘Diana’, its trunk covered with lichen, is a sight on a frosty winter morning in its leafless sparkle

Larches are unusual amongst conifers in that they drop their needles each year, leaving only bare trunk and branches.  The Larix kaempferi ‘Diana’, pictured above, holds court in late autumn at The Oregon Garden, with its shaggy, sculptural trunk and branches festooned with lichens.

Betula papyrifera

The winter landscape in this Bellingham WA garden is illuminated by the trunk of the paper birch

Some trunks make their statement by their color rather than their form or texture.  The stark white trunks of Betula papyrifera, or paper birch, are much more visible in winter when the tree is leafless.  On drab days they light up the garden and draw the eye.

Cornus stolonifera Arctic Fire

The trunk of this red-twig dogwood is so incendiary that its name – Arctic Fire – is patented!

Red-twig dogwoods (Cornus stolonifera spp) are an easy way to add boldly colored trunks to the winter landscape.  Unassuming shrubs when in leaf, they take center stage when wearing only their bare branches.  There are yellow-twigged versions, as well.

Japanese maple, red twigs, red stems

Vivid stems are the hallmark of the coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’)

Our ‘go to’ tree for red trunks and stems is the coral bark maple, whose botanical cultivar name ‘Sango Kaku’ means ‘coral tower’ or ‘coral pillar’ in Japanese.  The above shot was taken in spring as the tree is leafing out with chartreuse foliage, and the drama of the complementary colors (remember the color wheel!) is evident.

In autumn the trunk and leaves are nearly the same color

In autumn the trunk and leaves are nearly the same color

‘Sango Kaku’s autumn display is more muted, as the leaves turn to soft yellow-orange.

Japanese maple

Winter is when we appreciate the coral bark maple the most, when the leaves are gone and it is purely a ‘trunk show’

Coral bark maple is a lovely small tree that grows in full sun in our zone 9b.  There are dwarf varieties available, as well, such as ‘Aka Kawa Hime’.  The red tends to be most vivid on new growth, so the dwarf, slower growing cultivars will provide more eye candy at eye level.

Acer palmatum 'Mizuho Beni'

There are Japanese maples with golden trunks, as well, such as ‘Mizuho Beni’

Japanese maples have trunks with all shades of yellow, gold and green, as well as coral.  In addition, they have some of the loveliest shapes, most delectable new growth and gorgeous fall color of any trees.  Surely you have room for just one?

We’ve saved the most unusual trunk for last.  While some may call it a weeping Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Pendula’), others would just call it an elephant!:

elephant shaped tree

The ‘elephant’ at Buchholz & Buchholz Nursery in Oregon – a weeping Douglas fir


17 thoughts on “Trunk Show

  1. Will the arbutus ‘Marina’ do well in Seattle? If not, are there other arbutus that would?

    • Gayle, Arbutus ‘Marina’ is hardy to 15-20 degrees and Sunset lists it as growing in zones 8-9 and 14-24. Seattle is listed as Sunset zone 5. Arbutus unedo is listed as growing in zones 4-24, with possible damage ‘from severe winters’ in zones 4-7 but worth the risk. Why don’t you check in with a local nursery or with your local Master Gardeners? With the amount of microclimates in the West, there are always milder/more severe pockets so it may depend on exactly where in Seattle you are.
      Good luck!
      Jan and Sara

  2. love the elephant andd the pink bark

  3. It’s all beautiful and beautifully photographed!

  4. Sara………Beautiful treatment and inspiring visuals that bring us closer to what would be a lost common tree detail the ‘Trunk’.  Love the selection of trees you used here and the textures that define their names.  Branching structure and tree trunk shapes would also be a interesting topic that nature provides us with. In bonsai this is really the the artistic evolution that interests me the most.  How the trunk forms and the location of the branching that draws us into the innermost beauty of a tree.  Not just symmetry, but a compound of layers of foliage that enhances the trunk form and movement that works harmoniously together in many trees we see in nature that we try to duplicate in bonsai. Janice certainly has an eye for what would seem common to most, made unique by enhancing shape, form, color and texture.  You guys make for a great team, subjects that bring out the best that nature provides.  

    Cheers, Jack 


    • Jack, thanks so much! It is great to see how many people really appreciate the trunks, and your bonsai-enhanced view is particularly interesting. We’ll have to start looking at branching structure now!
      Jan and Sara

  5. Hey Sara……….Just wanted to touch bases with you today so you’ll know where to go for the tour tomorrow.  It would be best if you came to my place first, a brochure will be given you here with all the locations, photo’s, and directions to the other five gardens and ponds. It begins at 9:00AM and concludes at 4:00PM, and from what the weather man says its going to be a warm day.    You have my address from the ACS directory, but I’ll include it here also.   1102 Rickenbacker St., San Jose, Calif. /  95128  (408) 280-7539.  Look forward to seeing you tomorrow!



  6. Sara…….It was such a pleasure to see you three yesterday at my place.  It was a busy day for me, so many folks asking questions that I hope you didn’t feel left out when I wasn’t as attentive as I should have been as you walked and saw the the garden and pond.  |So many people just can’t stop capitalizing with your time and just let you move on! I believe we had over 450 guest total that day, and I was surprised that almost all the materials you left for me about the ACS was picked up with many showing interest in becoming fellow members.  Of course the water features are always the big hit on such tours but my garden and plants were a close second. Then the bonsai collection third.  I don’t get to really talk about my interest around my place much, no one really understands my passion here, so yesterday was a real kick to let it all out and talk shop and get good feedback from very knowledgable people like pond builders and landscapers.  Anyway I had a great time even though I had no breakfast or lunch since the time went so quickly that I lost all sense of my regular routine. And I just got home minutes ago from a tennis tournament that went two and one half hours this afternoon and I’m butte tired after a close win with my doubles partner. Hey, thanks for  showing up yesterday, it really made my day and I’ll see you next Saturday at QuarryHills arboretum.  I’m also bringing a gentleman from the local koi club that wants to tail along with Gerry and I for the event, also he wants to purchase plants from Scotts place if there’s time. Another potential ACS member!

    Cheers, Jack 



  7. Clever title, great photos. When my trees look like that, it’s usually because they’re dead! Ummm, like six across side. Am adding couple olive trees soon. Your colors and details make me want some of those.

  8. Great post! I love form and foliage (check out my foliage posts on the 22nd of each month) and I would always take into consideration the form of the trunk when choosing a tree. Melia azedarach has a beautiful trunch and is a very fast growing tree that also has flowers and bright yellow berries through winter.

    • Thanks Christina! Unfortunately Melia azedarach is toxic to livestock so we can’t grow it here at either Sara or Jan’s garden (both are parts of working ranches). We’re always on the lookout for lovely bark and interesting trunks.
      Jan and Sara

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s