Whitewashed Tree Trunks: The Unvarnished Story

Whitewashed Tree Trunks: The Unvarnished Story

Spread the love

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Posted by

Allen Bush
on March 11, 2015 at 7:43 am, in the category But is it Art?, What’s Happening.

    • DC Tropics
    • 27th June 2016

    I’ve always wondered about this–figured it was some kind of tradition. Here in Washington, DC you can see it at the Embassy of Liberia (hope this link works):

    • Mickie
    • 19th September 2016

    What a great post! Educational and fun to read. Thanks for sharing.

    • admin
    • 11th November 2016


    • Carol
    • 13th November 2016

    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.)

    • Alison Gillespie
    • 14th November 2016

    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.)

    • Kathy
    • 15th November 2016

    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?

Leave a comment

Recent Posts

Testing Pollinator Plants at Penn State

Connie Schmotzer is Principal Investigator for pollinator research. Just in time for National Pollinator Week, my Garden Writers region planned a fabulous outing for members – to see the Penn State Trial Gardens near ...

Read More