A Gardening Journal

Lacebark Pine

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The best bark of any conifer, with jigsaw-puzzle pieces of brown bark flaking off to reveal lime green.  No garden—and no gardener—should be without a lacebark pine.

 

The tree takes many years to mature, but the bark begins to show in comparative youth: ten to fifteen years.  It only improves with age.

 

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When the main trunks—and there are always several—are about two inches across, the bark begins to reveal its colorful nature.

 

Lichen contribute to the display.

 

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Although it could be a fantasy-come-true to purchase a property with a mature lacebark, it's just as likely that the pine isn't in the location you'd prefer—and the tree would deserve—and yet it would be far too large to adjust.  Better, then, to establish Pinus bungeana in the best spot you can offer, so its sui generis display is honored by the wisdom and drama of its placement.

 

 

Here's how to grow this thrilling conifer:


Latin Name

Pinus bungeana

Common Name

Lacebark Pine

Family

Pinaceae, the Pine family.

What kind of plant is it?

Evergreen coniferous tree.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 9.

Habit

Multi-trunked almost from the ground, with many broadly-upright limbs and an irregularly mounding canopy.

Rate of Growth

Slow.

Size in ten years

Twelve feet tall and eight feet wide.  Ultimately thirty to fifty feet tall and twenty to thirty-five feet wide.

Texture

The canopy is loose and open; the lower portion of the tree is often pruned to fully reveal the bark—see "How to handle it" below—creating a contrastingly muscular and sculptural effect.  

Grown for

The bark, which exfoliates in large irregular brown patches that flake off to reveal light green bark beneath.  The interstitial bark is grey or even silver, but each tree is an individual in palette as well as form.  The pattern becomes larger as trunk and limb caliper increases, and is present from the ground up. 

 

The tree's multi-trunked habit is fortunate, creating that much more bark to enjoy, and right at prime viewing level, too.  Even young trees develop interesting bark.  Partly because of the slow growth, and partly because of the increased show that a truly large and therefore old tree provide, mature trees are an unrivalled and even humbling experience.

Flowering season

Spring.  The flowers aren't showy.  They mature to modest cones.

 

Color combinations

Pinus bungeana goes with everything.

Partner Plants


Because this is a pine—a conifer—partner with a broadleaf evergreen instead of another conifer, let alone an herbaceous or deciduous species.  I vote for shiny leaves, too, which are most easy to achieve with broadleaf evergreens. 

 

Sarococca humilis is one possibility, as is Prunus laurocerasus 'Nana' or 'Mt. Vernon', or low cultivars of Euonymus fortunei.  Gardeners in Zone 7 could choose even more widely: Aucuba japonica 'Nana' or 'Wisley Dwarf', Aspidistra, Trachelospermum, and Hedera colchica, which, unlike Hedera helix, can build up to a "mattress" of growth over a foot high.  Don't let self-clinging underplantings climb the trunk; they'd obscure the bark.

 

I've chosen one of the lower bamboos as the broadleaf evergreen underplanting for my Pinus bungeana underplanting:  Indocalamus tessellatus.  Its huge leaves are a huge contrast with the pine's needles, but, candidly, it will grow too tall—to six feet.  These two bamboos are even lower, and therefore better: Sasa veitchii and Shibataea kumasaca

Where to use it in your garden

Pinus bungeana is one of the ultimate focal plants.  The tree is as striking at a distance, when the patterned bark reads as a bright and almost metallic silvery-gray.  The tree at the end of the center axis of the walled Morrison Garden of the National Arboretum is stunning.

Culture

Full sun and any decent soil; good drainage is important.

How to handle it:  The Basics

Plant in Spring, watering attentively the first season so that it establishes well—and then let the tree grow on its own for a decade or more.  After it's nearing fifteen feet tall, consider some discrete and limited thinning of lower branches so that the bark is more broadly displayed. 

 

I've seen specimens without a needle for the bottom fifteen feet.  It's a brilliant show, with dozens of branches, limbs, and trunks all surfaced with the unique bark—but at what cost?  The tree is so slow-growing even when completely happy, and any branch you remove deprives the tree of its bit of energy.  Would the tree be even bigger, even fuller—and with even more bark—had it been thinned less?  But that larger show would have taken even longer to achieve.  Pinus bungeana dares to you to achieve the biggest display by taking the longest amount of time.

 

Prune as sparingly as you can, then.  Regardless of the reality, act as if there's no rush.  Over the years, you and the tree will create its ultimate form together.  There's plenty of time to reveal its wonders.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

For all of its thrilling appeal, lacebark pine is a puzzle to integrate into the landscape.  The detailing of the sensational bark demands to be appreciated; it's essential that viewers can get close enough to ponder the interlocking patches of grey, green, brown, silver, tan, and, occasionally, orange.  It's also inevitable that they'll need to touch the branches.  This all means access to within two or three feet of the trunk itself.

 

But it's not healthy for the tree to have such a steady tromp-tromp-tromp all around its trunk.  The soil compacts, and the drainage that the tree also requires—let alone the penetration of air into the soil—is impaired.

 

Such close-range access also does nothing to enhance the longer view of the tree, which often arises directly from a skirt of lawn or gravel or paving.  At the Morrison Garden, there's a protective ad hoc fence around the base of the tree, which is necessary but unattractive.

 

Better to have a small viewing platform at one side of the tree.  Make this a small deck, not a terrace, which will prevent the soil compaction by frequent visitors.  Make the deck as low to the ground as possible; install it from the start so that any grading to site it discretely isn't achieved at the expense of an already-established pine's roots.

 

Around the rest of the tree, have as wide a skirt of protective as well as attractive horticulture as possible.  The tree is attractive all year long, so choose an evergreen that doesn't get too tall (lest it obscure the main trunks, whose bark is, if anything, the best of all), but that does spread widely.  But because this underplanting is helping to set off the tree when viewed from afar, a fully prostrate groundcover, such as pachysandra or ivy, would be too low.  A height of one to three feet would be ideal.

Quirks or special cases

None. 

Downsides

Lacebark pine is a long-term effect, true.  But branches begin "to bark" when only a couple of inches in caliper—as are the limbs of my still-young tree—so take heart in the ever-greater show to come. 

Variants

Pinus bungeana itself is a treasure.  There are a few cultivars to consider, but it's hard to imagine any garden with more than one such remarkable individual, so consider them overall with the goal of picking just one.  The bark of 'Silver Ghost' is notably more silver; this isn't in itself better than the species, whose bark also includes more patches that are darker or even, in some individuals, bright orange. 

 

There's a 'Compacta' as well, which needs even more attentive thinning to reveal the branches hidden by the more-dense-than-usual branches.  A dwarf form, 'Diamont', seems impossible:  How to prune something so slow-growing to reveal the bark?  There are countless dwarf conifers if your need is just for a mound of green needles.

 

All in all, then, choose on the basis of coloring, not size: 'Silver Ghost' if you'd like to maximize white and gray; the straight species if you want to include more colors in the show.

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

The species reproduces well from seed—but given the plant's slow rate of growth, it makes sense to buy a plant as large as you can afford, and thereby bring the time years closer when your garden might have a reasonably mature lacebark pine.  By purchasing a plant, then, you would be buying time—or rather, you will have bought the time that your plant has already taken to become the size at purchase.  The exchange of several (or even many) hundreds of dollars for several (or even many) years' jump on a mature lacebark pine?  Sounds like a bargain, to me. 

 

Cultivars are propagated by grafting.

Native habitat

Pinus bungeana is native to China. 

 
 
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