EVERY NEW YEAR’S Day, my husband and I take a little forest-bathing meander through Washington Park Arboretum. Looking to clear our heads in the bracing fresh air, we always begin by strolling through the Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden.
The Witt Garden is just a short walk west from the Graham Visitors Center; you’ll know you’ve arrived when you catch sight — and scent — of spidery witchhazel blooms and hear the clicking sound of Anna’s hummingbirds cavorting among the golden winter flowers on Mahonia ‘Arthur Menzies’.
Depending on the season, early blossoms and wildlife sightings can be capricious, but the beautiful bark on the trees in the Witt Garden never fails to dazzle me. Cloudy skies and drizzle or frosty conditions only enhance the beauty of a landscape designed to star in this quiet season.
An imposing stand of Chinese red birch (Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis) is one of my favorite compositions in the Witt Garden. The bare undulating trunks are perfectly situated so that the seasonally low light illumines the creamy peach bark peeling from the trees’ branches. A mature specimen of paperbark maple (Acer griseum) nearby contributes its own shedding cinnamon-colored bark to the show. A good tree for small gardens, paperbark maple (a Great Plant Picks selection) is attractive in every season but never more so than in the winter garden.
Elsewhere in the garden, a young Manchurian stripe-bark maple (Acer tegmentosum ‘Joe Witt’) glows like a ghost against the inky green shadows of surrounding cedars. A vase-shaped tree with green bark marked with especially distinct chalky white stripes, the selection is named for Joseph A. Witt (as is the garden), former curator of the arboretum, who was fond of plants with winter interest.
In another splendid seasonal moment, a carpet of Cyclamen coum, tiny winter-blooming bulbs with bright pink flowers and variegated heart-shaped leaves, puddles beneath the textured russet limbs of orangebark stewartia (Stewartia monadelpha). With delicate summer blossoms, brilliant fall leaf color and a graceful growth habit, this tree earns its place in the garden in every season but is an especially warm note in chilly weather.
One of the best parts of any thoughtfully designed public garden is the opportunity to execute extravagant plantings on a scale that most of us home gardeners would hesitate to give over the space to.
Looking back across the central lawn at the heart of the Witt Garden, the stage is set for the seasonal performance of colorful twig dogwoods. An impressive stand of Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ glows like a botanical bonfire, with slender, red-tipped yellow-orange stems that intensify in color as the season progresses. Just around the bend, a golden mass of yellow twig dogwood (C. stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’) emerging from a dense planting of black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Ebony Knight’) strikes a dramatic chord that almost vibrates in its intensity.
So, whether you’re looking for a sensational seasonal moment or just need to clear your head, I recommend visiting the Witt Winter Garden. You’ll find a garden map and complete plant list on the arboretum website.