Friday, February 25, 2011

Winter Color

The conventional wisdom around winter gardens is centered on the use of structural evergreens.  For many, they provide strong verticals and horizontals on which to hang the rest of a design.  They can also give you something to look at other than seasonal death and destruction.

For me, they appear as lonely sentinels, guarding the current fashion for leaving perennials with their dead seed heads frozen in the winter landscape.   Only a very few plants hold any interest in the dark winter months, and they are worth considering for the city garden. 

Magnolias are beautiful in winter, with their muscular grey bark and fat buds promising bloom you can anticipate for spring.  Rock spray, Cotoneaster horizontalis, with its stiff fishbone-shaped branching pattern, looks wonderful hanging over a wall or planted on a bank.  Set tight against a building, it will tend to grow upwards without any tying.  Its stiff habit provides support for spring and summer climbers, but I would only use the delicate ones such as clematis or morning glories; heavy climbers will likely kill off some of the branches. 

Winter-twig dogwoods will lift your spirits in February.  Cornus alba with its bright red stems perform well for years if you prune it regularly.  The yellow-twig dogwood will do the same.  Brilliant color will only appear on new growth; if left alone the stems get duller and bushier as the plant ages.  But if you cut it down by about a third each year, the new young growth will be vivid.  For the best performance, you would need to cut the entire plant down in early spring so that you have only new growth that winter.  I’m not sure the shrub would survive many years of such rough treatment, but it would be worth trying it out on one or two.

I find tattered, peeling bark very attractive, but for some it is an acquired taste.   You have to be careful in a small garden; more than one or two peeling trees would look odd.

If you are fortunate enough to find a paper-bark maple (Acer griseum) buy it, bring it home, and take good care of it.  It is unequalled in the winter landscape, especially in the snow.  The exfoliating bark ranges from cinnamon to reddish brown.  When the brown bark peels away, it reveals a layer of orange underneath.  Additional gifts are its brilliant red fall color and its form -- graceful as both a young tree and still small when mature.  It rarely exceeds 40 feet.

The Japanese Flowering Cherry (Prunus serrulata) sheds its outer covering in circular strips, leaving annual ridges on its bright mahogany bark.  It looks as if it had been polished by a vigorous hand, especially when seen in sunlight.  ‘Kwanzan,’ with its deep pink, double flowers is the most frequently seen variety.

The bark of the London Plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia), with its broken pattern of cream and olive, is instantly recognizable.  It is one of the first trees school children learn to identify as it is the most widely planted tree in New York City, used in virtually every park and playground.  It is the signature of the New York City Parks Department, and for a city that tears down as often as it builds up, it is a symbol of longevity.

1 comment:

  1. Great explanations and photos of trees. I love those whose bark is interesting--they're beautiful in winter as well as in summer. You might also remember Stewartia (sp?), which has lovely bark and flowers in early summer. Thank you for writing; I'll continue to read!