The gardens' bones are showing. The falling of the leaves exposes a black-and-white snapshot of the garden instead of the color picture...

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THE GARDENS’ BONES are showing. The falling of the leaves exposes a black-and-white snapshot of the garden instead of the color picture we’ve been enjoying since early spring. The absence of foliage reveals the essence of deciduous trees, which can no longer hide behind a cloak of green or the spark of variegation. As our eyes adjust to the unadorned palette, we find that the texture and color of bark has its own subdued charms.

I’ve always loved books with line drawings that show the mature shape a tree will take on, because it is just that eventual presence of limb and spread that is hardest to imagine. We most often choose trees for their needles or leaves, forgetting that a tree’s form will have the most effect on the garden. The first question to ask about any tree is how large and into what shape it will grow. When we shop for trees, we tend to think in terms of evergreen or deciduous. Rather we should consider whether a tree will grow into a graceful tiered Styrax japonica shape or a narrow birch-like form, whether it will spread wide like an oak or artfully droop like a Japanese maple.

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A walk through the Washington Park Arboretum in winter is an education in the effect of tree shapes on the landscape. For precise and elegant drawings showing the shape of mature trees, as well as their fruit, leaves, needles, blossoms and bark, take a look at “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees” by David More and John White (Timber Press, $79.95).

If we think of trees as clothed or unclothed depending on the season, maybe it isn’t surprising to realize some look best naked. A prime example is the corkscrew hazel, also known as Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’). In summer its gnarled branches are so disguised by coarse, puckered leaves it appears nothing more than a deformed green blob. In winter it is a thing of beauty, with glossy dark bark and twisted twigs whirling around in a fantastical manner. Then there are the ghostly birches, with stippled silvery bark rising out of a bed of wet winter moss. More curious is Betula nigra with patches of shaggy bark hanging off the trunk like a Great Pyrenees in full shedding mode.

Shrubby dogwoods come into their own just now in the landscape as they shed their leaves to show off stems and shoots in shades of red and yellow. Red twig or red osier dogwoods (Cornus sericea) are multistemmed shrubs that thrive in damp soil; C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ has golden-yellow branches rather than red.

Despite the fact their leaves are perfectly pretty, several maples are grown for their unusual bark, eye-catching enough to serve as a focal point in the wintery landscape. The trunk and branches of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) are draped in swathes of thin bark rolling and peeling like sheets of old wallpaper. This is more beautiful than it sounds, for the bark is a rich orange-brown on top of greenish-copper underbark, giving a warm russet effect overall. The paperbark maple hails from China, grows to 25 feet high and nearly as wide, is late to leaf out in springtime and has brilliant red fall color. Nearly as stunning is the snake bark or stripebark maple (Acer pensylvanicum) which has prominent pale stripes running vertically down the trunk. In winter, the bark turns reddish-brown, making the pale markings even more distinct; the cultivar
‘Erythrocladum’ adds bright-pink winter shoots to the show. There are several kinds of stripe-bark maples from which to choose, including Acer x conspicuum ‘Elephant’s Ear,’ a small tree with white-striped purple bark, or ‘Silver Vein’ with bluish-green bark patterned in white.

For a hit of vivid color, the trunk and limbs of the delicate coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’) glow bright, warm pink, lighting up the garden and taking the edge off our color cravings at this monochrome time of year.

Now In Bloom

Aucuba japonica ‘Picturata’ is so flashy you forget it’s a rock-hardy, evergreen broadleaf shrub adaptable to growing in difficult, shady, rooty and dry areas of the garden. Its shiny leaves radiate out like bursts of sunshine brilliant with golden dots and dashes, especially impressive when the shrub reaches its full 4 to 6 feet in height and breadth. Its foliage is long-lasting cut and tucked into winter wreaths and garlands.


Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.