Bark in the Park

A park walk with some tree ID

American Sycamore

Sycamore Seed Pods

Many of you know that I work directly with a tree grower, and many of the trees grown are specialty and unique trees at the farm nursery. Many others are trees that parks and commercial jobs purchase, but they all start out around 20 feet or so in the landscape, not much more than 2.5 inch caliper. But those at parks have been there for a very long time if they were not newly planted.

Specimen Sycamore

The images you are seeing are of the American Sycamore tree. It is huge at almost 100 feet tall and a beautiful landscape tree that is found in many parks throughout the country.

Older Sycamores

What makes this tree a stunning winter tree is it possesses all the qualities of a winter interest tree. The bark is mottled and older trunks exfoliate in scales or plates leaving a smooth, whitish inner bark. The trunk grows to a larger diameter than almost any other native tree. The record, I believe, was 15 feet O.D., but more commonly the largest is to almost 13 feet. You can see above, by the scale of the 8 foot bench, that the one Sycamore is around 11 feet across.

Size alone makes this a tree for very large properties. I never specified one to plant, and never would have seen it grow to such great girth. The large estates that I landscape design do have old, large established trees, such as beech, maple and willow. You may have seen these trees in previous posts, but no Sycamores.  If you want to plant one, it needs a lot of room to grow, but it will be a beautiful tree for generations to come.

Small Group of Sycamore

Spreading limbs at the top make an irregular, open head for a wonderful winter silhouette. The tree throws beautiful shadows which on a paved or walled surface, add visual interest. The crooked branches give it such an interesting form and structure.

Sycamore trees have light green colored, maple-shaped leaves that turn golden in the fall providing contrasting fall color. It is a member of one of the oldest clan of trees (Platanaceae), and paleobotanists have dated the family to be over 100 million years old. Living sycamore trees can reach ages of five hundred to six hundred years.

River Birch

Birch Bark

The cinnamon colored bark of the River Birch darkens with age. The tree lives about 80 years and is fast growing. The tree can be a clump variety or a single specimen, and looks wonderful planted in groves or as a property screen in rows. They are a very elegant tree, and in summer, have an open, airy feel. Both the Sycamore and Birch do like moist conditions.


Tamarack Cones
Larch or Tamarack tree, comes from the genus of trees of pine and are unusual among the conifers. Tamaracks are deciduous, their soft, needle-like leaves, borne in dense clusters, drop in the fall, and new leaves will appear the following spring. But this is not what makes it an interesting winter tree. The form makes it a unique specimen and it carries its little cones through the winter. It is a tree with a lot of texture in both the dense canopy and in the bark. The needles go golden in Fall making it a tree to take notice of throughout the seasons.

Tamarack Bark

Red Oak, image from the post Acorns to Oaks

Bur Oak

This is an old, gnarly, ice damaged tree. You can see how the really low branches were removed at a very mature age of the tree.

White Oak

Oak Marcescence, image from the post Acorns to Oaks

See my post Acorns to Oaks to see why the oaks keep their leaves through the winter. The oak is a classic form of tree and very commanding in the landscape. It has much interest, especially to squirrels. But keeping those leaves when other trees are bare, is a nice quality for the younger oaks. Older trees retain leaves usually on lower branches or sparsely throughout the upper canopy.

Austrian Pine

Another large tree is the pine. As a conifer, it makes a nice backdrop for the deciduous trees and shrubs. It has very interesting bark too.

Pinus nigra Bark

Let’s take a look at some other large trees and their bark

Clockwise from left:

  • Silver Maple
  • Norway Maple
  • Oak
  • Little Leaf Linden

These trees have been used for many years in parks and cities, but due to the larger size, have been used less and less. The cities have gotten much smarter about trees that get planted. Trees that require less water are a much better choice. Many hungry and thirsty maples are being replaced with small, more drought tolerant trees.

Crab Apple

Not all trees in the park are huge. The crab apple family has many varieties that are small for home landscapes. They are trees that often have beautiful form and carry berries right through the winter. Another colorful tree is the Sumac.  The red branching is a wonderful contrast to the whites of winter.

A walk through an established park has trees that have been growing, some for a century or more. You get to see mature trees in a place where they can grow naturally. Sure, the Parks Department maintains them and will keep them shaped nicely, but that is something you should have done to your trees as well.

I do not highlight individual plants very often, mainly because, as you can see in this post, some plants have very specific cultural need, and are not suitable worldwide. But to discuss them from a design perspective and in generalized terms, it makes the post more useful to a larger audience. I can go through the nursery, tree variety by tree variety, but many of these species are better adapted to our area, not necessarily in the deep south or on the opposite side of the world.

Here we looked at the naked trees found throughout the park system in a northern climate. They add to a snowy landscape with mass and form, texture and color, and all the other design criteria to make a garden or landscape complete. They provide food and shelter for wildlife, our trees clean the air and provide oxygen for us.  So much can be learned from trees in winter. To see more of what they do for us and what we can do for them, see my post, Trees in Winter Glory. It really is a celebration of trees.

Next post, we take a walk along the river. From this we can see how trees live in these conditions, but more importantly, see how trees complete the scene visually.

This post is added to A Tidewater Gardener’s Winter Walk post. Take a tour with Les.

And it also links with the seasonal memes at Gardens Eye View, and PlantPostings. See what is in store by clicking to find out.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
This entry was posted in garden, Niagara Falls, Niagara Falls State Parks, Tree ID, Trees and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Bark in the Park

  1. Great post – very interesting and educational. So many times we don’t really look at the individual species of trees, just enjoy them for their size. Thanks.

  2. What gorgeous trees! I love the Sycamore and River Birches! The mere size and age of all these trees is so impressive….making it so important for the parks to take proper care of these trees so that more generations can enjoy them!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Donna, Great images and information as always. This is the time of year when there are less visual distractions and one can really appreciate the textural surface of tree bark.

  4. I saw that you entered Les’ Walk off Challenge and had to come over. So very glad I did. Love trees. I have done 50+ posts on trees, highlighting individual trees. I finally got my 24 year old daughter to recognize Sycamores…they grow along our river/lake and are wonderful white structures standing out in the landscape. There is a hospital down here that is rather new, (we just moved to the area) and they landscaped the parking area with Sycamores…very close together. After commenting I plan on reading the other posts you highlighted.
    We also have River Birch growing along the shoreline, lovely tree. My woods are mostly oak/hickory.

  5. Both Acorns to Oaks and Trees in Winter Glory are super posts. Glad I came by here this morning.

  6. HolleyGarden says:

    I don’t know a lot of trees by name, so I enjoy learning more about them. That sycamore is so beautiful – truly majestic!

  7. You are truly an inspiration. I want to plant some sycamores now and birch and …

  8. Lovely trees – where would we be without them in the landscape

  9. I love trees and our native trees in the area are a mix of white ash, maple and birch mixed with some pine. I am adding a crabapple but these large majestic trees are amazing….I especially love the Sycamores bark

  10. b-a-g says:

    I love these huge trees too. In the UK we have London Planes which are a hybrid from American Sycamores. Coincidentally I’m posting about one this week.

  11. Kevin says:

    I always pause when I see a Sycamore. The bark pattern is so fascinating to me.

  12. I grew up with deciduous oaks, but here they’re all evergreen, and not particularly oak-looking, in that their leaves all seem to be the wrong shape to me. I do love the red oak though, it’s a beautiful tree. That crab apple is lovely too. I’d love to see more trees like fruiting crabs planted in public spaces, they’re such a wonderful habitat tree, and provide a lot of food for wildlife without taking up much space.

  13. I love large old trees and your park certainly has some beauties. I have 15 of those very large sycamores on my 2 acre property, and you are right they do take up a lot of room. I love them though.

  14. andrea says:

    Donna, this is a very informative post, specially for me who hasn’t been familiar with temperate trees. Maybe you should post them again when they are fully loaded with leaves. I love that sycamore bark. Once in China, i saw a tree with bark like fatigue uniform, almost like your photo but designs are larger. Till now i haven’t learned what that tree in China is, maybe it is also a sycamore, Chinese sycamore, haha. I will search. thanks for the lead.

  15. Les says:

    I clicked on the link as soon as I saw you were joining in my Winter Walk-Off. I was also glad that someone was going to do a post about dogs, but then I found out it was a different type of bark, but I was not disappointed. I think the winter is a great time to appreciate trees. A local native plant society regularly holds a “nude tree walk” each winter where clothed people enjoy bare trees.

  16. I enjoy trees, but I am still brushing up my identification of them. Your photo of the river birch took my breath away…beautiful. A friend of mine gave me a river birch seedling last year….it is only about 3 feet tall now. I am looking forward to watching it grow and flourish…they are so lovely.

  17. Nice bark! This is a great post, Donna. I appreciate the seemingly simple things through your camera lens–you give it all great depth and perspective. How fortunate we are to have so many great trees in our backyards and neighborhoods!

  18. Layanee says:

    I adore those aged and majestic trees. There is no substitute for age is there.

  19. igardendaily says:

    Hi There! I so enjoyed this post both the photos and info. Many of these trees can be grown in my area so I am familiar with many of them but it is rare that you see such big, old ones here. Since Boise, is somewhat of an arid climate trees take a long time to get big. I do have several of the ones you’ve listed that are medium size but nothing AWESOME size. Trees are so special to me (I’m always gazing at them) and I love how you’ve captured them.

  20. That is the blue sky the song is written about! I love sycamores — was just looking at some spectacular ones on the grounds of Biltmore Estate.

  21. I love the textures of tree bark, very interesting post Donna, I liked the next post with snow too, keep warm, Frances

  22. Loved this series. (You “barked” up the right trees.)

  23. Les says:

    Congratulations Donna, you won one of the prizes in my Winter Walk-Off. if you will send your mailing address to me at morehiways @, I will send you a set of cards, handmade by my wife. Thanks again!

  24. Hi Donna, I did not know about Les’s Walk-Off but so enjoyed visiting you again (through his site) and seeing some of my very favorite trees! I wish you could stand with me beneath an incredible Sycamore in Sunderland Ma. It even has an international plaque in recognition of its being here since the signing of our constitution. I did not know till now that it is listed in wikipedia – You can see it here-
    Wonderful post!! I see you are continuing your very high standards in posting. Happy Spring to you. Carol

Comments are closed.