Barking up the wrong tree

Posted by & filed under Shrubs, Trees.

Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox 'Concolor')Every January, it gets very quiet in the Garden. Few visitors come and brave the cold weather. I am pretty certain that many people also have the mindset that “there is nothing to see.” It’s winter, all the plants are asleep. Or so most people think.

Certainly this is not the season for over-the-top floral displays. But we all can’t feast as we do on Thanksgiving day. Sometimes a fine dish is best appreciated during a simple meal. Spring certainly overloads our senses with a smorgasbord of colors and smells, but we also need those calmer moments to sometimes truly appreciate the beauty of this Garden. A walk through here in January is just that opportunity.

There are some beautiful, brave flowers that bloom right now. A white contorted Japanese flowering apricot in the Japanese Garden is stunning right now. A few camellias have pushed out blooms in between cold spells. The yellow bells of mahonias are jingling in various spots.  Stop to enjoy not only their lovely flowers, but enjoy the architectural element of the plant itself.

One spot not to miss on your walk is Baker Overlook. As you climb the steps to the deck, notice the crimson flowers of a quince coming into bloom. When you arrive on the upper platform, enjoy the view of the Conifer Garden. There is an impressive array of shapes and shades of green. Quite refreshing in the dreary days of winter. As you stand there, you may start to smell an amazingly sweet fragrance, especially if there is any warmth to the day. When you turn around you will finally notice a large, leggy shrub covered in translucent yellow flowers. They are beautiful to look at, but even better to smell. Ahhh, what a treat for the brave January walker.

Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)But don’t get caught up in just looking for flowers. This is a great time to really appreciate some of the more subtle beauties of the Garden. Appreciate the design of the landscape, the forms of the trees and shrubs, the resilience of many of these plants in cold weather. Enjoy the berries of a sarcandra, the winged samara of a maple or the bursting buds of a paperbush. See things you don’t usually pay attention to when trees are covered in leaves or flowers – see the bark.

A walk around the Garden, just looking at the bark is an interesting experience. You would be surprised at the great variety of bark that is out there. There’s the grooved bark of some of the elder statesmen of the Garden: red maple, white oak, tulip poplar, sweetgum and black gum. Even then, these grooves all are a little different. The maple is a little shaggy, the black gum has deep grooves, sweetgum’s grooves are more widely spaced.

There are trees with reddish bark. Redwoods have a shaggy appearance with flakes of red bark twisting in all directions. The dawn redwood is lighter red and more neatly groomed. The Sycamore (Platanus occidentails)Chinese fir has deep grooves in the red bark, while the Japanese crape myrtle features a smooth skin of red bark.

The crape myrtle is well known for its smooth bark. The sycamore has smooth white bark near the top, but is often shaggy lower on the tree. Both the lacebark elm and the Korean dogwood have rather smooth, if somewhat blotchy, coverings. Our native dogwood has a very blocky bark, looking like it is covered in small cedar shingles. Persimmon’s bark is even more blocky with large chunks squeezed together across the surface of the tree.

Of course some trees have unusual coverings that are easy to recognize. The peeling bark of river birch is easy to spot. A tree covered in warty bark must be a hackberry.

So take a walk and see how many different types of bark you can see. You’ll have a howling good time.  

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