My good friend and horticultural demigod, John Stella, inspired the title of this article. Several months ago we were talking about characteristics of plants and how a trained eye can see them so clearly. Just as a doctor can look at an X-ray, a mechanic can listen to engine or a chef can taste the individual ingredients of a dish, so too can a plant person look into the depths of a landscape and pull apart all of it’s inner beauty with ease. Asked years ago to list all of my favorite plants, I believe I gave up somewhere around 400 or 500. There are simply too many plants that do too many wonderful things to have a list any smaller. While most are happy just being enamored with the leaves and flowers of plants, there are those of us who appreciate the bark and twigs as well. Many trees and shrubs devoid of their foliage offer outstanding characteristics, in the dead of winter, and in many cases builds the argument for their main appeal in the first place.
Coral Bark Maple, Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ has to be the grand champion for winter interest. An upright, deciduous tree that many, when they first learn it, deem to be the most shocking because of its electric red bark in the coldest months of the year. Here’s another though, Pacific Fire Vine Maple, Acer circinatum ‘Pacific Fire’ also has similar markings. This one, however, has more of an orange-red hue on its bark with a waxy sheen that leaps out at you in the winter. Paperbark Maple, Acer griseum has classic cinnamon or red-brown exfoliating bark. “Snow acts as a perfect foil for the bark and accentuates its qualities” Michael Dirr. Persian Parrotia, Parrotia persica, a tree native to Iran has exfoliating gray, green, white and brown patches on older specimens and is a personal favorite. Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides is the most widely distributed tree of North America! Younger trees express smooth, greenish-white to cream colored bark and landscape designers like the strong vertical white lines they offer as they come through mass plantings beneath them. Japanese Zelkova, Zelkova serrata is heavily lenticelled and usually depicted with a strong central trunk supporting a huge vase-like head. The bark, on older specimens, has gray-brown markings, often exfoliating, reminiscent of Chinese Elm, Ulmus parvifolia.
Perhaps my favorite, smaller deciduous shrub, for winter interest, is Japanese Kerria, Kerria japonica. Distinct yellowish green, and in many cases, bright neon- green stems in the winter are a beacon for many. Kerria, incidentally, looks infinitely better when mass planted. Common Winterberry, Ilex verticillata has bright red, sticky fruit, often in pairs, looking as though they are holding on for dear life through February. Tatarian Dogwood, Cornus alba is a deciduous dogwood shrub of medium stature, reaching heights of 6-10 feet. And while there are many with interesting foliage, the winter months punctuate the bark, often showing crimson reds or bright yellows. And who could forget Highbush Blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum; whose stem color in the winter is yellowish-green to red. Another superb deciduous plant for mass plantings!
Finally to the conifers! Albeit, the following plants are not deprived of their foliage in the winter, on the contrary, they maintain their winter coats and also have distinguishable marking that amplify their external jackets. A Lodgepole Pine drawing considerable attention is Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’. A deep, rich, golden-yellow pine pulls itself away from the drab colors of winter and beckons to be touched to see if it’s real. Found in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon by Doug Will, this tree transforms itself from green in the warmer months to extreme yellow in the colder months. A Canadian hemlock to note is Tsuga Canadensis ‘Albospica’. Cultivated since 1866, this hemlock has snowy-white tips that contrast dramatically against its interior dark-green needles. A dusting of fresh snow held over this shade garden plant will make you a believer that there is a God. Finally, a Himalayan Pine with incredible winter interest is Pinus wallichiana ‘Zebrina’. A variegated selection that has long, thin needles and bands of yellow held in and around powder blues. Formerly listed as Pinus griffithi, Himalayan pines are native to the high mountains of Afghanistan to Nepal.
Many plants devoid of their foliage offer outstanding attributes. My hope is that this article has you looking at landscapes this winter in a new light. While flowers, leaves and needles are nice to look at; it’s not the whole picture. Great gardens inspire us throughout the seasons and winter is where it all begins.