By Grace Elton

CEO of New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill

Bark has always fascinated me. From art projects taking bark rubbings as a young child, to studying it as a way to identify trees as a professional horticulturist, I’ve always stopped to notice this interesting part of a tree. Bark is the tree’s protection from the outside world. The outer bark regulates moisture within the tree, protects it from the elements, and defends against insects. The inner bark, or phloem, passes food to the rest of the tree, and the cambium replenishes cells within the trunk and produces new bark as the actively growing part of the trunk. Thinking about these essential functions that bark performs, it fascinates me even more that this utilitarian part of a tree can be so beautiful. I can’t walk past the bark of a sycamore, a paper bark maple, or a Tibetan cherry, without stopping to admire it. Bark can tell you so much about the history of a tree; its age, the environmental conditions in which it was grown, the life it has had. It tells a story of resilience. Bark will grow to seal a wound where a branch died or was removed, protecting the tree from future rot and insects. Bark provides products such as cork, cinnamon, and gorgeous dyes. It has been used for millennia by humans to create shelter, boats, ropes, clothing, musical instruments, maps, painting surfaces, and medicines. Too often, in my opinion, the flowers of plants get all the attention. I get it. They are colorful, they often smell nice, pollinators love them, and they are essential for the survival of the species because their function is reproduction. But I’d put the bark of a rainbow eucalyptus up against any flower in a beauty contest.

My love of bark was already well established when I moved to New England from the south, but I quickly learned the importance of bark to provide winter interest in the northern garden. It was a shock to me to not see leaves on deciduous trees for almost half of the year. In some ways, winter is bark’s time to shine without the distractions of so many leaves and flowers. Serving as CEO of the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill (formerly Tower Hill Botanic Garden), I am treated to seeing many rare and interesting plant specimens each day. Meeting Doug Johnson and learning that his love of bark was inspired by a trip to our garden just made me thrilled that our mission of connecting people with plants is alive. I hope this book will encourage others to take a closer look at bark and be inspired by all that it provides to trees and all that it provides to us.

Grace Elton is CEO of New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill, a 171-acre garden in central MA. Elton has a public horticulture background with experience at premier gardens in the United States and United Kingdom. Elton has a Master of Science in public horticulture with a certificate in museum studies from the Longwood Graduate Program, University of Delaware. Her Bachelor of Science degree is in environmental horticulture with a public gardens management specialization from University of Florida. She serves as Treasurer of the Board of Directors of the American Public Gardens Association.
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