Looking for something unusual and eye-catching in the winter landscape? A hidden gem you might not be familiar with is Pinus bungeana, known commonly as lacebark pine. The bark of the species offers quite a vivid display—mottled and multi-colored, its hues graduate from white to gray, yellow, green, purple, and orange. As a bonus, the bark peels off in amorphous shapes, revealing more yellow bark beneath the surface which changes color by exposure to light. Flakes or plates of bark fall onto the ground beneath the tree like puzzle pieces, exposing new layers. It’s a vibrant display that requires patience, however. It can take up to ten years for the bark of the lacebark pine to begin expressing its kaleidoscope of colorful bark. As the tree continues to mature, a ghostly white is revealed, which over time becomes the trunk’s dominant color—a phase that may take decades to express itself.
Lacebark pine is an evergreen conifer native to central and northern China, where its name is Bai Pi Song (白皮松). The Arboretum grows nine individuals currently, none of which has entered the ghostly stage of its maturity. The oldest specimen in the collection is accession 663-49*C, located off Conifer Path just to the south of the Central Woodland. Planted at the Arboretum in 1949, this accession was received from Lu Shan Arboretum (today’s Lushan Botanical Garden) by American biologist Albert Johnson. A favorite tree of Arnold Arboretum Director Ned Friedman, this specimen offers a textbook example of the charismatic bark that gives the tree its common name. Ned sings its praises in his Director’s Tour of the Arboretum, an evocative journey I highly recommend.
Additional examples of Pinus bungeana in the conifer collection (accessions 244-2000*C, 79-2002*A, and 80-2002*A) were collected by the Morris Arboretum on a NACPEC Expedition in the Quinling Mountains of Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces. Two individuals grown by Arboretum Senior Scientist Emeritus Peter Del Tredici can be found in the Explorers Garden (accessions and 466-80*A and 466-80*B) on Bussey Hill, and an accession received from Beijing Botanical Garden (566-79*C) grows in a corner of the southwest slope of Peters Hill. Our youngest lacebark pine, found in the Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden, is ‘Silver Ghost’ (499-2016*A), a cultivar with bark that displays more white and light grays than the species. Check out ArbExplorer on the Arboretum website to find exact locations of these trees.
Pinus bungeana has been cultivated as an ornamental for centuries in its native China, particularly around Buddhist temples and in cemeteries. Despite its captivating bark, the tree has seen limited use as an ornamental in American landscapes, perhaps due to its rather slow rate of growth. In time, however, Pinus bungeana can reach a height of 30 to 50 feet, often forming multiple trunks (like 663-49*C) and becoming broad-spreading (20 to 35 feet) with age. This growth habit can make it susceptible to breakage and splintering under heavy snow loads; in fact, cabling supports 663-49*C due to storm damage over its nearly 75-year life span.
Cultivated in holy spaces in Asia yet little known on our continent, these trees seem like an enchanted secret. As coniferous evergreens they seem to compound the mystery, shielding their distinction behind stacks of green needles. But if you visit one and take the time to look closely, the lacebark pine’s wild rainbow of potato chip-shaped bark can delight the eye and the spirit in a snowy landscape. Take a winter walk in the Arboretum and give these incredible trees their moment to shine.