Appreciate tree bark during winter’s bite
“Winter has beautiful stories left to tell.” — Angie Weiland-Crosby
Each of us has a favorite season and a special reason for choosing it. Winter is not often named by gardeners, however. In November, a gardening friend of mine was already talking about what she would plant in spring — she just bypassed winter altogether.
This winter, I encourage you (and her!) to take the time to enjoy the beauty of winter in your own yard, in a nearby park, in public gardens such as Maymont, or by visiting a special place such as Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Monticello, Williamsburg or Washington, D.C.
Trees are the largest presence in a yard. Winter is the time to appreciate trees and shrubs with interesting silhouettes and colorful berries; however, why not focus on the unusual bark of several deciduous trees and shrubs?
Crape myrtles, known for their abundant blossoms in late summer and their spectacular leaf color in autumn, have amazing exfoliating bark in winter.
The peeling bark, which is normal for mature crape myrtles, starts in warm shades, ranging from cream to beige to cinnamon to bright red. The colors fade to reveal tones of light green-gray to dark red.
Another small tree, the paperbark maple (Acer griseum), has lovely cinnamon-colored bark that peels in long, curled strips. A large tree reaching to 120 feet high, the shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) peels in long, tough curls off the straight trunk.
Another tree with peeling bark is the native river birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’). Creamy salmon to brownish at first, it exfoliates to reveal creamy white inner bark.
The stark white flaky bark of European birches (Betula pendula) offers a striking contrast to a backdrop of evergreens.
For larger gardens, coral bark willow (Salix alba ‘Britzensis’) provides a similar bright spot in the winter landscape.
Coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’) has branches and twigs that gleam coral red in winter contrasting with the trunk’s green tones. Younger branches (one to two years old) are the brightest. As the tree ages, the branches develop a brownish green tinge.
Dogwoods of all types
Several species of shrublike dogwoods provide outstanding winter color of red or yellow. Multi-stemmed, these typically have a suckering habit and turn the brightest color in cold weather on new growth.
Although pruning is not necessary, for the best display of color, many gardeners choose to remove 20 to 25% of the oldest stems in early spring to stimulate growth of new stems.
Another technique is to prune all the stems close to the ground in early spring every two to three years to renew the shrub. Although this will result in the blossoms to be lost that one year, the flowers are inconsequential in these dogwoods.
The red twig or red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) looks gorgeous in the snow. Recommended cultivated varieties are ‘Baileyi’, ‘Cardinal’ and ‘Arctic Fire’.
Another twiggy dogwood called Ivory Halo (Cornus alba ‘Bailhalo’) produces white-outlined leaves in summer and red stems in the winter. Tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’) is another vibrant red selection.
The bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’) has yellow winter stems that are tipped with red twigs. Yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’) sports bright yellow stems on younger growth.
Most of the dogwood shrubs have gorgeous fall foliage color, can grow in full sun to part shade, and are tolerant of a wide-range of soils. However, they prefer moist, well-drained soils. Although dogwoods are said to be deer-resistant, the deer in my neighborhood don’t know that!
Cork bark Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Arakawa’) is prized for its cork-like bark that gains more interest with age. Its fiery red autumn leaves provide a colorful display. On mature specimens (three to five years old), the bark gets rough and corky with creases, cracks and fissures.
The bark of many cherry trees has what looks like small cuts (called horizontal lenticels) that are lighter or darker than the rest of the bark. In some cherries, the bark peels with a darker mahogany color underneath.
Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia), with its mottled brown, gold and gray peeling bark, has the bonus of beautiful, camellia-like blooms in the summer and red to purple foliage in autumn. The smooth bark of this small tree flakes off to reveal a camouflage pattern underneath.
Read the story of trees this winter.
Lela Martin is a Master Gardener with the Chesterfield County office of the Virginia Cooperative Extension.