When you think of a tree, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Usually, we think about its overall size or how full the canopy is. Or, we think about the colors, either of the leaves or the blooms (if there are any). We might even think about where it would look best if planted in our yards or other plants that look nice around it.
But, do you ever spend any time thinking about the bark? If not, you’re not alone. It took years to become a habit for me, as I was too busy looking at everything else. And I was doing myself a disservice because, in addition to being crucial to a tree’s survival, it also reveals a wealth of information.
The simple yet intangible beauty of a sycamore-lined narrow driveway.
- White Bark: The Key to Survival
- 15 Beautiful Trees With White Bark
- 1. Birch Tree
- 3. Poplar Tree
- 4. Sycamore Tree
- 5. Palo Blanco Tree
- 6. Paperbark Tree
- 7. and 8. – The “Gums” (Eucalyptus and Corymbia)
- 9. Whitebark Pine Tree
- 10. Evergreen Elm Tree
- 11. Chitalpa Tree
- 12. Brazilian Ironwood Tree
- 13. Japanese Wisteria Tree
- 14. Common Fig Tree
- 15. White Alder Tree
- Which White Bark Tree is Right for Me?
White Bark: The Key to Survival
A tree’s bark is its outermost layer of stems and roots – its “skin,” if you will, protecting everything inside. It consists of the outermost layer, appropriately called outer bark; next is the inner bark; after that is the all-important layer of cambium (more about that later); finally, in the center, is the wood (sapwood and heartwood).
All trees start with smooth, unbroken bark and, as they grow, the wood inside pushes out against the bark surrounding it. The outer bark responds to this pressure in various ways. It peels away in long curls or sloughs off in small flakes to reveal new bark underneath; it also cracks and splits and remains on the trunk. These species-specific responses create unique bark patterns, like “fingerprints,” now widely relied upon for accurate identification.
It is not only the bark patterns that tell us about the trees – the color does, too. The striking white bark loved by so many is evidence of a climate with extreme temperature changes between day and night. It is also the key to the trees’ ability to survive those changes.
A cross-section of a tree trunk showing the different layers of bark and the location of the life-sustaining cambium.
Here’s how it works:
Cambium is responsible for producing the healthy vascular tissue that keeps trees alive. When a tree’s internal temperature swings widely from hot to cold and back again, the cambium is adversely affected. The production of healthy tissue is then compromised. White (or lighter) bark absorbs less heat – such as heat from sunlight reflecting off the snow – than darker-colored barks, which keeps the internal temperature more consistent, thereby maintaining optimum conditions for the production of viable tissue.
15 Beautiful Trees With White Bark
The scientific processes that keep them alive aside, there’s no denying that trees with white bark are just plain cool to see. They create a striking contrast and visual interest not achieved by brown barks. Several species seamlessly transition from the wild to ornamental landscaping applications and make lovely front or back yard additions.
Birch, aspen, poplar, and gum trees are the first types that come to mind, and for good reasons. They are the whitest of the white-barked trees, and it is the feature for which they are known. But there are other species to think about as well..
Here are 15 different types of beautiful trees with white bark to consider. Bear in mind that many of the species listed have multiple varieties or cultivars from which to choose. Noteworthy cultivars are listed when applicable.
1. Birch Tree
A zoomed in perspective of a stand of birch trees showing the dramatic contrasting bark.
There are somewhere between 40 and 60 different species of birch trees, all of which belong to the Betula genus (Betula happens to be Latin for “birch”). Some estimates have this number higher than 60, and around 18 are native to the United States.
The two most popular native U.S. birches are the paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and the river birch (Betula nigra). The whitest of all the species is the whitebarked Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii).
Noteworthy cultivars: ‘Cully,’ ‘Little King,’ ‘Chickadee,’ ‘Snowy,’ and ‘Grayswood Ghost’
2. Aspen Tree
A shot from within “Pando”, a colony of quaking aspen trees said to be the longest living organism (still living) on Earth. Individual trees above ground come and go but the gigantic root system from which they all Spring forth is estimated at 80,000 years old and going strong. “Pando in the Fall” by Intermountain Region US Forest Service is marked with CC PDM 1.0
Six different species of aspens belong to the Populus genus, along with poplars and cottonwoods. There may be other aspen species classified elsewhere. Two species are native to North America: quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and bigtooth aspen (Populus grandidentata).
They like to grow as a group, all originating from the same seedling, spread by root suckers. In the wild, aspens live above-ground somewhere around 150 years, but the root system lives on for thousands and thousands of years. There is a colony in Utah with a root system estimated at 80,000 years old.
Aspens have bark that is a beautiful greenish-white, and it remains that way for the duration of their lives. They are medium-sized trees so, in theory, have merit in ornamental applications. Just remember how quickly and easily they self-propagate.
Noteworthy cultivars: ‘Erecta’ and ‘Prairie Gold’
3. Poplar Tree
The stark white trunks of poplar trees in wintertime.
Like its aspen cousins, poplar trees are tall, skinny, and members of the Populus genus. The poplar name creates confusion because while it is a separate tree, the term has become a catch-all for any of the three trees in the Populus genus. As a result, aspens and cottonwoods are sometimes referred to as poplars, too.
White (Populus alba), the Carolina hybrid (Populus x canadensis), and balsam (Populus balsamifera) are some of the more well-known types of poplar trees. They are incredibly fast-growing and can shoot up to anywhere from 65-100 feet tall. They have powerful, aggressive root systems that will tear up anything in their way and are known for sending up enough suckers to be problematic.
Thankfully, there are sucker-free varieties: check out the Simon poplar (Populus simonii) and Japanese poplar (Populus maximowiczii).
Noteworthy cultivars: ‘Italica,’ ‘Schreiner,’ and ‘Thevestina’
4. Sycamore Tree
The ultra-recognizable camouflage pattern of sycamore tree bark.
Trees in the Platanus genus are known for their unique bark just as much as their massive size. These are the beloved and symbolic sycamore trees, the stoutest species of tree in the country (and third in the entire world)..
Also known as plane trees, we have three that are native to the U.S. The American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is by far the most popular and widely cultivated. California (Platanus racemosa) and Arizona (Platanus wrightii) sycamores are the other two, and three others are native to Mexico. They all have similar bark, but my professional experience has been that the Arizona sycamore’s is the whitest of all of them.
The easiest way to identify a sycamore is by its bark. The lighter brown outer bark peels away and falls off to reveal white or very light grey bark underneath. The pieces that slough off do so in a manner reminiscent of camouflage, creating a striking and memorable effect.
Noteworthy cultivars: ‘Bloodgood,’ ‘Liberty,’ ‘Globosa,’ and ‘Howard’
5. Palo Blanco Tree
One of my go-to trees in Arizona landscapes, the Palo Blanco tree. The name means “white stick” in spanish, a reference to its white bark. “Palo Blanco -Acacia willardiana” by Desert Trees is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
This native of the Sonoran Desert is one of my favorite trees. It stays contained to a manageable size, has an appealing structure, has attractive bark, is incredibly heat and drought tolerant (making it xeriscape-friendly), and is an all-around low-maintenance tree. It originally belonged to the Acacia genus but now belongs to a new genus separate from Acacia called Mariosousa (the Australian cousins retained the Acacia genus designation with the North American “acacias” undergoing the name change).
This tree tops out around 20-feet, sometimes lower, and has a spreading, weeping canopy. Its Spanish common name, Palo Blanco, translates to “white stick,” a reference to its white, peeling bark. The tiny, shimmery leaves and creamy yellow flowers complement the pale bark beautifully.
6. Paperbark Tree
From the ground looking up into the canopy of a paperbark tree. Inset: a closer-up shot of the multi-layered bark that peels away like sheets of paper.
A member of the Myrtle family, Melaleuca quinquenervia is an evergreen tree native to Australia that reaches 20-40 feet in height. This species gets its “paperbark” common name from the many papery layers that split and peel and make up its thick bark. The genus name comes from the Greek melas, meaning black, and leukos, meaning white. This is likely in reference to the white bark that is often blackened by fire damage. The species name is derived from the Latin quinque (five) and nervus (nerves or veins), referring to the 5-veined leaf pattern.
Paperbarks have been widely introduced into tropical and temperate climates worldwide, becoming invasive almost immediately due to their profuse seeding habits. In the U.S., paperbark trees are found in five states: California, Hawaii, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. In Hawaii and Florida, they are considered widespread and invasive.
7. and 8. – The “Gums” (Eucalyptus and Corymbia)
Arguably the whitest of all the white-barked trees, Australia’s native ghost gum trees appear to glow in the moonlight.
I put these two genera together because…well, let me explain, and you’ll see why.
The Myrtaceae family has three different genera with species of trees colloquially called “gums”: Eucalyptus, Angophora, and Corymbia. It’s pretty rare for that to happen, not to mention confusing; there are “gum” trees in other genera as well. In this case, the Corymbia’s species were at one time in the Eucalyptus genus. They were reclassified sometime in the early ’90s.
To further confuse matters, all trees belonging to the three genera are collectively known as “eucalypts.” So, while all eucalyptus trees are eucalypts, not all eucalypts are eucalyptus trees.
(Incidentally, trees are called “gum trees” due to their thick, gummy sap or resin produced beneath the bark.)
White-barked eucalypts include Corymbia aparrerinja (ghost gum or white gum), Eucalyptus alba (also called white gum, or Timor white gum), Corymbia citriodora (lemon-scented gum), and Eucalyptus mannifera. There are several species of eucalypts called “ghost gums”, all of which belong to the Corymbia genus. They are likely not only the whitest of the white eucalypts but the whitest of all the white-barked trees, with stark white bark that appears to glow under moonlight.
Noteworthy cultivars: ‘Cab Sav,’ ‘Grace’
9. Whitebark Pine Tree
Once plentiful, the whitebark pine tree’s existence on the planet is now contained to a very small section of North America. Conservation and repopulation efforts are in full swing in an attempt to bolster numbers.
The whitebark pine tree is a marker of the subalpine tree line, which means the 9,000-11,000 feet elevation range where it grows is the “line” of demarcation between a denser forest below and the barren alpine above, where virtually nothing grows. It’s a very hardy species and has learned how to survive the harsh conditions of the Rocky Mountains and other mountainous regions throughout the northwestern U.S.
At subalpine elevations, whitebark pine trees get hammered by the elements and tend to look more like crooked, overgrown, low-growing shrubs as a result. In lower elevations where conditions are not so extreme, they are quite attractive; tall and upright, with upswept branches and smooth, especially-bright white bark when young, they make lovely specimen trees. As they age, the bark changes from smooth and white to rough and brown with white speckles.
The subalpine tree line showing whitebark pine trees above and fir trees below.
Conservation efforts are currently in full swing as the species is endangered. Seeds with growing kits, forestry pellets, and young seedlings are sold online from various sources. These trees can hit 90-feet in height in optimum conditions but also respond well to specific training styles. They are a favorite of bonsai aficionados.
10. Evergreen Elm Tree
A close-up of the bark of an evergreen elm tree. Evergreen elms also go by “lacebark elm”, in reference to their lacey peeling pattern.
An all-around great tree for ornamental landscaping is the evergreen elm. It also goes by Chinese elm, Chinese evergreen, and lacebark elm, so this is a case when using the botanical name – Ulmus parvifolia – avoids confusion. They are low-maintenance, easy growers in zones 5-10, tolerate both sun and shade, are xeriscape-friendly once established, and adapt well to different soil types.
As if that’s not enough, they just look good. Light pruning keeps evergreen elms manageable in size and looking clean; without pruning, the slightly weeping-style canopy tends to look a bit unkempt. I’ve always loved their pretty two-tone leaves because of the shimmer effect created when they move. They thrive in Arizona, having adapted well to dry, hot climates, blending seamlessly into any style and easily complementing other tree and plant species. It’s one of those trees you never get tired of, even though they’re so widely used.
I think it’s debatable, but many will say the most beautiful feature of this species is the bark. It’s unquestionably one of its most recognizable features. These elms have a layered bark system, with each layer varying in color. The outer bark is mostly pale grey, and it flakes away in a lacey pattern (hence the “lacebark” name) to reveal splashes of other colors underneath.
From a distance, the bark looks like a solid white or very light color. Only as you get closer will you notice the multiple colors and lace-like patterns.
Noteworthy cultivars: ‘Dynasty,’ ‘Ohio’
11. Chitalpa Tree
Another pretty tree that thrives in hot, dry climates is the chitalpa. This tree is a hybrid that comes from crossing the catalpa from the southern U.S. with a desert willow. This cross intended to capitalize on the hardiness, shape, and flower color of the Arizona-native desert willow and the larger size of both leaves and blooms of the catalpa. The resulting cross is a true drought-tolerant desert tree with big, colorful blooms.
A chitalpa tree is also sterile, meaning no messy seed pods to clean up. That ensures it is rarely removed, which increases its commercial value and makes it perfect for streetscapes and parking lot islands. Its size, shape, and lovely pink flowers make it well-suited for home gardens as well.
Chitalpas don’t only thrive in Arizona; they are at home in zones 6-9, as long as they have full sun and soil with excellent drainage. Avoid shade if possible; it makes them more susceptible to diseases that detract from their visual appeal.
This species has pale, grayish-white bark, making it a favorite of those who enjoy the visual interest of stark, bare, wintertime branches on a snowy winter background.
Noteworthy cultivars: ‘Morning Cloud,’ ‘Pink Dawn’
12. Brazilian Ironwood Tree
Like many other species of white-barked trees, the Brazilian ironwood is multi-layered and multi-colored, making for a lovely display when peeling.
A leguminous tree, the Brazilian ironwood joins its desert ‘Bird of Paradise’ relatives in the Caesalpinia genus. Also referred to as leopard trees, Caesalpinia ferrea is most known for the way the bark peels away from the tree’s trunk. The wood of this tree is very hard, which is what earned it the “ironwood” moniker.
The uniquely thornless leopard tree is small to medium in size. It is native to various parts of Brazil in low to medium elevations but grows readily in tropical and temperate regions globally. Its crown is almost the perfect shape and size for a garden tree, and the amount of shade it provides is ideal as well.
Though not a true white, the trunks of these trees are very light yellow and smooth. As they age, the outer bark peels away in long strips, revealing new, bright, pale yellow bark underneath.
13. Japanese Wisteria Tree
Virtually every part of the white Japanese wisteria tree is stunning in some way, down to it’s pale bark. This feature combined with huge bundles of downward-hanging white flowers gives a lovely shining effect, even at night. Pictures from Longwood Gardens taken by Raul654 On May 1, 2005. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The Japanese type is one of two wisteria trees in the U.S. that “escaped” cultivation (the other being the Chinese wisteria). This escape has earned them an “invasive” designation, deservedly so. The aggressive vines of wisterias are known to climb the trunks of other native species, strangling them as they make their way into the canopies to smother those too.
It is unfortunate that the wisteria has such off-putting growing characteristics because it is otherwise quite stunning. It’s perfect for covering walls, trellises, arbors, and pergolas, thanks in large part to the very large, very colorful, and very fragrant clusters of flowers that hang down from the limbs in what has become the trademark wisteria style. If vines aren’t your style, or you have nowhere to let a vine do its thing, wisterias can be trained into small trees as well.
An ideal planting location provides both full sun and fertile soil with excellent drainage. Wisterias tolerate shade but do not bloom as much. Why bother having a wisteria if you aren’t going to get the most blooms from it that you can? That said, they can still make a unique statement in moon gardens.
Because both Chinese and Japanese varieties grow aggressively here, differentiation may be a cause of concern at first. If you’re unsure, check the bark. Chinese wisteria bark is dark grey or brown with light lenticels vs. the white bark of the Japanese type.
Noteworthy cultivars: ‘Alba,’ ‘Rosea,’ ‘Lawrence.’
14. Common Fig Tree
Figs, Ficus, mulberry, and sycamore trees are regularly confused with each other, probably because they are all related and in some cases are the same tree. This common fig happens to be a species of Ficus in the mulberry family, and is related to sycamore trees.
Is it a fig, Ficus, or mulberry? The common fig tree (Ficus carica) belongs to the same family as mulberry trees, as does another white-barked tree, the sycamore. Reaching a height of 21-30 feet, it categorizes as either a small tree or a large shrub.
Ficus carica bark is smooth and white, covering a trunk that can achieve a diameter close to 3-feet, which is insanely huge for a shrub. Fruit aside, the bark of this tree is a feature for which it is well-known. The bark darkens from white to a pretty, eye-catching silvery-grey as the trees mature.
This species of fig spreads readily by both seed and cuttings, which means plantings outside of controlled cultivation applications get thick enough to displace native flora. As a result – you guessed it – they are considered invasive in parts of the western U.S. and other countries as well.
This fast-growing deciduous tree is its own worst enemy when it comes to issues with pests and diseases. As is the case with any particularly fast-growing tree, a high growth rate in a short time can cause the bark to split. These splits are like flashing neon signs for pests and the diseases they spread. Dwarf cultivars are therefore worth exploring.
Noteworthy cultivars: ‘Celestial,’ ‘Little Miss Figgy’ (dwarf options), ‘Chicago Hardy,’ ‘Little Ruby.’
15. White Alder Tree
Alder trees are related to birch trees, but their bark is not nearly as white. All species of alders have bark that darkens with age.
Alder trees are members of the birch family, some of the whitest of the white-barked trees. But alder bark is darker; it is pale grey as opposed to a true white. The bark of all alder trees darkens with age (regardless of species), and the white alder is no exception. The pale grey, smooth bark in time gives way to a darker grey with a reddish tint.
Alder trees, though common in name, are not often seen in ornamental landscaping applications. They can get quite large with wide-spreading canopies and require riparian habitats to look their best. In fact, they are the most common tree found in natural riparian environments. If you have access to a natural water source (stream or river, for example) and a lot of room, an alder tree can be an easy-growing option. Without a natural water source, you can plan to invest a good chunk of time and energy into keeping the soil moist but not overly so.
The bark of the alder tree is nice enough, but it’s not my favorite thing about them. Alders are one of those trees/plants known as nitrogen fixers, meaning they can absorb nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the soil, where the much-needed element is often in short supply. This ability betters the quality of the planting medium and, as a result, contributes to the improved health of any other plants growing in the same vicinity. It’s a miraculous biological process, nothing short of awe-inspiring and wondrous.
Noteworthy cultivars: ‘Imperialis,’ ‘Liciniata.’
Which White Bark Tree is Right for Me?
A Himalayan birch tree in a front yard application. Himalayan birch, Edinburgh Botanics by Tom Pennington is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license
As you can see, there are many different species of trees that feature white bark, but not every tree on this list is appropriate for an ornamental application. Some are as beautiful as they are because they are largely left to live their lives in their natural, wild habitats. Taking them out of that can result in unhappy trees, with unhappy appearances.
With the specific thought of home gardening in mind, my favorites from this list are evergreen elm, chitalpa, palo blanco, wisteria, and fig. These five species offer a range of different looks and feels, and are very well suited to domestic garden life.