Bark Paper

The sycamores are losing their bark. Arizona Sycamores, which grow in the Sky Island area South of Tucson, will grow in Phoenix if they get enough water. And the stand I walk through every morning is well watered and cared for.

sycamore3In the early summer, the bark of the sycamore splits and the tree looks old and damaged for a few weeks.

The bark of the tree lifts up, and the young bark underneath hardens. Once the bark underneath is ready to act as the tree’s skin, the top bark flakes off.

For someone from the East Coast, who is used to Birch trees, the sycamore shedding is very different. The bark is stiff and thicker than birch bark, and much more likely to split.

The newer bark is smooth and very pale, and the trees suddenly look taller and more elegant.


You can see both kinds of bark on one tree.

sycamore2The bark was lying around on the lawn, so I picked some up and took it home.

sycamore6I soaked one piece to make it pliable, then, once I could bend it and flatten it out, it went under the iron to heat, dry and flatten it. Then into the book press to keep it flat. It came out of the book press flat and smooth enough to write on.

Barkflat1You can see the difference in flatness and smoothness between the treated piece on top and the bark the way it was on the ground, bottom.

Barkwriting“What we are never changes, but who we are never stops changing. –Gil Grissom. The bark is smooth enough to write on, but it’s brittle. I tried to pierce holes in it to see if it could be stitched, but it’s too brittle.

Birch bark, peeled into layers.

Birch bark, peeled into layers.

Birch bark, on the other hand, is pliable and thin, and can be stitched. Birch bark also has the dark lines on it. Birch trees aren’t native to Arizona, they need a lot more water than even Northern Arizona has. Birch bark can be used as paper without any more treatment and has been used as paper in both India and Russia.

sycamore1For now, the sycamore bark will have to do as thick and inflexible writing slabs. Not as nice as Birch, but with rustic appeal.

Quinn McDonald is a naturalist and a journalist. No surprise she’s writing on tree bark.

22 thoughts on “Bark Paper

  1. The Arizona Sycamore is a favorite. I especially enjoyed a trip I took into Madera Canyon after one of the heavy snowfalls at high elevations. The sycamores still were in their bright orange leaf dress, and the rest of the world on the mountain was white. What a beuatifulo contrast it was.

    I have more than a few pieces of sycamore bark, and dozens of photos too, the colors and abstract patterns are endless, of course, but almost a meditative ptactice..

    Now I;m curious about writing on them, too. A lovely complement. It seems a Dreml with a delicate hand and a tiny bit would work. What a great idea, Quinn.

    • I’m going to try again with a rivet tool for piercing when the bark is wet, like Barbara Joan suggested. The orange sycamore against the snow must have been lovely. And your photos would surely do them justice. Here in the Valley, the leaves just brown in July and fall off.

  2. An oil or a fat? Would that soften it enough to pierce without cracking? Could you punch holes? Love the quote.
    I planted a eucalypt once thinking it was variety that lost its bark in great stringy pieces but alas . . . . it was lovely to lie on the grass underneath though.

    • I’m thinking drill more than fat. As a book and collage artist, fat is the enemy of ink and glue. It works quite well to soak the bark in water, iron it and then put it in the book press. It flattens out nicely and doesn’t re-curl. To attack it to a substrate, I will use glue or try drilling.

  3. Along the outside of the Japenese Gardens downtown are some trees with this kind of bark. I don’t know what kind they are but would be worth checking out. Does eucalpytus bark work?

    • I haven’t tried eucalyptus bark yet. I think the Japanese Garden is closed right now (it closes in May for the summer). I’m guessing the trees there are Sycamores, though. I was there in April but was focusing on the quilt exhibition and just enjoying the shade of the trees!

  4. I have not seen the Arizona Sycamores but if I did, I would have definitely been checking out the bark. I love incorporating elements from nature into my artwork and discovered some paper birch bark last year in Michigan. I haven’t tried it yet in any of my pieces but sewing will definitely be involved.

    I love that you worked the thicker bark and wrote on it. You come up with the best ideas!

  5. Beautiful! I wish I had some of that bark! It would make some really great gifts and it’s graduation time. Does it eventually bow as it dries after having flattened it? Nature will often have it’s own way no matter how we test it. I’m going to have to look around and see what Oregon has to offer as a substitute. Our trees tend to have a thicker bark on them. You’ve given me reason to see with new eyes.

    • Once it’s through the book press, it looks exactly like the piece of bark I wrote on. If you mean birch bark, which has a light, velvety feel, but I have only the piece my brother in law sent me. If you want sycamore bark, write me. I’ll send you some. It’s clean, no bugs.

  6. Whenever I have something odd shaped, stiff, fragile…in other words different and challenging that I want to incorporate into a piece of fiber work I use the method form East Indian cultures that is used to attach shisha mirrors. The stitches go through the ground material and form arms or legs across my desired addition to the design…has worked wonderfully well for me. Was also thinking that some of the stitches used for bookbinding could be employed in a similar fashion over the bark and through the ground. This bark is really beautiful and the story of the shedding of the old when the new is ready is fascinating. Great post today.

    • I wasn’t sure I wanted to put it on a substrate, but now that you mention stitching, I’ve become interested again. I think I could also drill holes in it with a dremel. Now you have me wondering, too!

  7. This may be why the natives living in the desert centuries ago never developed the Sycamore Bark Canoe.

    Life forms differ, of course. I live with a dog who’s over 20, still scampering around and bustling about, and isn’t losing her bark in the least. Just a *little* slow serving dinner and that’s obvious.

    • Yes, the Sycamore Bark Canoe is more of a footpath of pieces. That explains how come we don’t have water in the desert. No canoes. Much like your dog, whose bark is “rough.”

      • Hmmm…no water in the desert because no canoes…hmmm…AHA! No time to comment further; I’m off to build a new garage *exactly* the right size for a 1935 Duesenberg Dual-Cowl Phaeton…

  8. I wonder what would happen if you took a meat tenderiser to the bark while its wet? Would that thin it down, crush the fibres and make it more pliable? Those trees look like one of our local eucalypts. I know that its possible to make rope out of eucalypt bark, but hadn’t thought of paper. Time to experiment! Thank you for the inspiration!

    • Meat tenderizer is an enzyme that works on protein. I’m dealing with cellulose. Birch bark peels into thin layers, sycamore does not. I could boil it in lye and see if I can get some of the lignin out, but that’s not a job for my kitchen in summer.

  9. That’s a great idea, we have different trees here in Austrlalia, one called ‘ paper bark’ so I will see if I can find one and see how it goes ! Thanks for this great blog always full of useful stuff.

    • If you live in an Australian desert, we share the same eucalyptus trees. The leaves can be dried and pressed, but will stay green. They can then be painted. I use mine as bookmarks. (The How-to is in the next book!)

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