In the Garden: Bones

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Charles Kidder In the Garden
In the Garden, by Charles Kidder

As the last bit of brilliant fall foliage disappears, it’s tempting to think that all color and interest has left the landscape. But I’m easily amused, so I consider grays, browns, tans—and of course, greens—to be colors too. What’s more, the lack of leaves now makes the structure of the vegetation—the bones, if you will—more apparent. Take some time to enjoy the bones of the woods that surround us, and then consider how you can bring some of this into your own landscape.

In the forest of winter, you’ll probably notice the bark of mature trees first and foremost. I’d guess that most people recognize the bark of the American beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) more readily than any other species, perhaps for an unfortunate reason. The smooth gray bark invites all too many folks to inscribe their initials, providing an avenue for pathogens to enter the tree. (If you want to leave a mark on something, go get a tattoo and leave the poor tree alone.) In addition to the distinctive bark, beech trees typically retain their parchment-colored leaves through much of the winter. Listen to them rustle hypnotically in a slight breeze.

The blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana), sometimes known as ironwood, musclewood or hornbeam, is not related to the true beech. The serrated leaves do resemble those of the beech, however, and its gray trunk may have a bluish cast in the dim forest light. The furrowed, sinewy bark hints at the great strength and hardness of the underlying wood, traditionally used in tool handles. Ironwood is a common small tree in the lowlands of the eastern U.S.

The American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is a tree that is far more conspicuous in the dormant season, owing to its peeling, whitish bark. If you’re hiking through the woods, large specimens may not be immediately apparent, since the lower trunks often just display brownish flaky bark. But on a drive through the countryside, their ghostly limbs sparkle in the bright winter sun. Sadly, sycamores are attacked by an introduced anthracnose disease that disfigures the foliage in early summer, although it does not kill the tree.

The birches are another group of trees that most people would recognize, although many would think first of Hiawatha’s canoe birch, sometimes known as the paper birch (Betula papyrifera). Unfortunately for us, this birch does well only in colder northern climes. There are some Asian birches with whitish bark that are marketed for use in the South, but most either do not really do well here, or the bark is more grayish than white. Certainly the best birch for the South is the native river birch, B. nigra, with its flaky peeling bark.

Several species of oaks are a major constituent of local forests, and all are attractive in winter. My personal favorite happens to be the white oak (Quercus alba). Its flaky, ash-colored bark stands out in the woods, and an older specimen growing in the open conveys power and strength like no other local tree.

So, what if you want to bring some of these structural bones into your own garden? Admittedly, you’re not going to have a monarch of the forest overnight, or even after a couple of decades, for that matter. But even a young tree will add substance and interest that no perennials can match. For example, although the straight species of the river birch is not very showy, some cultivars have become quite popular in the last few decades. ‘Heritage’ is most often planted, usually multi-trunked trees with patches of cream-to-salmon-colored bark. ‘DuraHeat’ is a Georgia selection that can easily take Southern summers.

If you like the light colored bark of sycamores, the London Plane tree (Platanus x hispanica) would be the best way to bring one into your yard. This tough hybrid is planted in cities throughout the temperate world, being very tolerant of urban conditions and resistant to anthracnose. Its exfoliating bark is more creamy than white, and, like its American cousin, it can become a very large tree.

For a smaller tree with interesting bark, don’t forget the crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia). Their showy flowers bloom virtually all summer and some varieties even have decent fall foliage, but the attractive bark really takes center stage in the winter. Color ranges from cream through greenish and on to cinnamon brown, often intermingling in irregular patches. The website of the U.S. National Arboretum provides a concise guide to several crape myrtle cultivars.

Finally, let’s not forget an outstanding native for its winter structure, the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). Even though people usually think first of its flowers and secondly of its good fall color, the dogwood has character right through winter. The dark, blocky bark is distinctive, and the layered branching lends a real grace, especially with a touch of fluffy snow.

If you have some room, consider planting a tree to bring structure to your garden. Otherwise, just enjoy the bones of the local woods, now exposed for your viewing pleasure.