Whitewashed Tree Trunks: The Unvarnished Story

Jardins du Mont des Arts. Brussels, Belgium. Shutterstock Photo
Jardins du Mont des Arts. Brussels, Belgium.
Shutterstock Photo

After a few swipes on Aunt Polly’s plank fence, Tom Sawyer  tired of painting whitewash. So it doesn’t surprise me that there’s no hint, in Mark Twain’s novel, that Tom took a paintbrush to tree trunks.

I have been intrigued with this peculiar cultural phenomenon since I was Tom Sawyer’s age. Yet I don’t see painted or whitewashed tree trunks very often anymore.  In the 1950s and 1960s, along rural Kentucky and North Carolina roadsides, you could overlook a few cows and cemeteries, but you’d never miss a white tree trunk.

Rose and I spent 10 days in Sanibel, Florida, with our family, a couple of weeks ago. We packed the car and drove away from Kentucky with a foot of snow on the ground and the temperature headed to minus 15 F

My people and Rufus. Sanibel, Florida.
My people and Rufus. Sanibel, Florida.

Along Interstate 75, in North Florida, two days later, with chilly temperatures only in the 40s, we passed mile after mile of beautiful cabbage palms, long needle pines and live oaks that inevitably gave way to endless boring exits, pockmarked with the same national hotel chains and fast food joints. (Confession: I’m a sucker for Cracker Barrel. The chicken and dumplings are scrumptious.)

You rarely find whitewashed trees along any busy interstate highway, though. These landscape artifacts can still be found, off the beaten path, in Florida and around the world.  I am surprised and delighted whenever I spot one.

I saw whitewashed trees in Turkey and Greece a few years ago. (We now know that the oracles at the Temple of Delphi were stoned, huffing ethylene poring out of intersecting tectonic faults underneath the temple. However, I can’t confirm that the oracles sanctioned whitewashed Greek trees.)

Stone pines. Ephesus, Turkey.
Stone pines. Ephesus, Turkey.

Sanibel is not exactly filled with stoners. Nor is it swinging South Beach. There’s an old Florida vibe about it. Sanibel is the winter preserve for a lot of vacationing old people. (I am, until the end of my time on earth, stuck in this demographic.)

But there’s more going on here than just old people bicycling, fishing and shelling. The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) has preserved, with tremendous foresight, 1300 acres of land on Sanibel, Captiva and neighboring Pine Island. They operate a fun native plant nursery, too. I’m still not sure what pushed my temptation button to buy pairs of tender seagrapes and coonties to haul back to a life indoors.

Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Nursery 0215

Rose and I love to visit the J.N “Ding” Darling Bird National Wildlife Refuge. We take binoculars and study the birds each time we visit. We forget the birds as soon as we return home. Then we learn them all over again the next time.

We rented a cabin at the Castaways on Sanibel, within walking distance of the beautiful Gulf Coast beach. It turned blessedly warmer.

The Castaways has a special palm grove. I mentioned to a friendly maintenance man just how much I liked his painted palms. He shook his head, raised his hands and claimed no responsibility. His colleague felt more fondly toward the colored trees. He said that you could also find them in Jamaica. A Brazilian landscape worker, it was explained, had previously taken liberty with the white paint at the Castaways.

Sanibel, Florida
Sanibel, Florida

Stephanie Rose Bird has found a spiritual meaning to whitewashed trees. The author of the Big Book of Soul: The Ultimate Guide to the African American Spirit suggests the color white, as in, whitewashed tree “…represents the ‘other world,’ that is the spirit world from which we conjure energy.”

Besides good energy, there were practical applications for whitewashing, or painting, tree trunks. According to British tree consultant, Peter Thurman, insects might be fended off, and sunscald on tree trunks could be avoided, as well. Plus, the painted trees were more visible along roadsides at night.

But practical seems secondary to tradition.

While we were in Florida I couldn’t stop thinking about Skink, a recurring character in Carl Hiaasen’s popular novels.

Skink, “a ragged one-eyed ex-governor of Florida” and a “renegade,” is not at all cordial to the greed mongers who are laying waste to swaths of Florida.

Skink would like these painted palms.

Skink likes old-fashioned.


    • I’ve never seen the white tree trunks at the Liberian Embassy. Thanks for sharing this. I’ll be on the lookout next time I’m in time.

  1. Exactly.


    In Jamaica last year I asked our driver why the tree trunks, nearby, were painted white. He said he didn’t know but always thought it was so they could be seen easier at night with car lights and not hit them.

    Fun read. Thanks.

    Garden & Be Well, XO T

    • Tara, I think this makes a lot of sense. I can think of a few Kentucky curves that could be better navigated at night with a few white tree trunks.

  2. I remember from a Horticulture course I took that the white paint used in hot climates is for sun protection (which can cause the bark to split and insects to enter, as you said). My 1992 text, Arboriculture, by Richard W. Harris suggests to plant budded trees so the buds face the afternoon sun, and to paint them with white latex paint to provide shade. Whether or not this helps much, I am not sure. Where I live, in Georgia, I see Pecan groves with the tree trunks painted white quite often. Maybe people just do it now because it has traditionally been done. (Like planting Cannas in the middle of truck tires by the driveway.)

    • Thanks, Carol. It sounds like a white latex paint or a light colored winter wrap, on some sensitive trees, might be the ticket. The Florida and Ephesus, Turkey white tree trunks are decorative.

  3. I really enjoyed your post. I love Sanibel, too. And the refuge there is wonderful wonderful wonderful. I remember all the power going out there one afternoon and one of the shop owners shrugging and saying: it is one more thing to keep the spring breakers away from this beautiful, quiet, simple place. (She had a generator out back, so I guess that helped give her perspective.)

    Anyway, I have often seen these painted trees here in the burbs in DC and I HATE IT!!! It makes me cringe, and feel so bad for the poor tree. It seems like the worse kind of angry abuse to a tree, and I love trees. I have often driven by the embassy mentioned by another commentor, and cringed. In fact, whenever possible I drive to avoid it, because it is THAT unsightly and painful to me.

    So it was refreshing to see the other side of this, and understand that it wasn’t just vandalism. I had never considered it might be someone’s tradition. I just thought it was people who hated the trees they were forced to live with in their front yards…. or people who thought that a natural tree was ugly, which is the exact opposite of the way I see it.

    I am also glad to know it doesn’t kill a tree. I do think some species might really suffer if painted, though. Because wouldn’t the paint seal in the oxygen and cause fungus? Just a guess. But bark does perform a really important role in the life of a tree, and they aren’t just statues.

    Now I want to know more and I will go inquiring with more those who might have answers about my local species here…. Thanks for the prompt!

    Great post.

    • Alison, I’m glad you’ve gotten to enjoy Sanibel, too. Anne’s reply to you comment sheds a lot of good info. Thanks, Anne.

  4. Allison, I have an orchard in Oregon (cherries and pears), and growers here paint the tree trunks when young to protect them, as Peter Thurman says above, from sun scald and bark splitting, which can be an entry for bacterial and fungal problems, and insects, plus voles don’t like the bark as much with paint on them (and in the winter time, when there is snow on the ground, voles like to chew the bark off lower down, while hidden under the snow, girdling and killing a young tree). Also, on sunny days the glare off the snow can cause more intense sun scald. Sometimes we will put a small amount of copper in the paint, for extra fungal control, especially in a part of the orchard where there is a problem. The paint doesn’t hurt the trees; plus, there is plenty of bark left exposed up above, where it is less vulnerable because of age, shade and distance from the ground. Generally speaking, after a few years, the paint wears off as the trunk and bark grow bigger, and we don’t re-paint the mature trees (although some orchardists do). Some growers also paint a thinner ring of colored paint around the trunk for identification purposes, especially if the rows got interplanted with multiple varieties, maybe for pollination purposes (but often by mistake!). Hope that helps to answer your question. I have no idea why the trees in Turkey and Florida are painted though!

  5. In the early seventies I worked on base as a civilian at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. I was very taken by the multitudes of painted tree trunks and always wondered what the reasoning was. Many of the base facilities were located in WWII era wood buildings and in addition to the trees there were a lot of painted rocks surrounding the parking areas and structures. At the time I wondered if all this painting effort was perhaps a way to keep “short timers” occupied?

    • I was, by special invitation, a non-civilian guest at Fort Belvoir in 1966, and not at all a short timer but early on in my two year command performance. In the Army, a standard directive is, “If it moves, pick it up. If it doesn’t move, paint it.” That said, Fort Belvoir did seem several notches above the Army average in its use of paint. I suspect that the closer an army post is to the Pentagon, the greater the amount of paint deployed. Fort Belvoir is a study in red and white. With nothing but a few changes in signage, it would be a perfect Santa Village

Comments are closed.