Wayne served as president of Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA), New England Nursery Association (NENA), and American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA) which is based in Washington, DC.
Wayne is the horticultural consultant for GrowingWisdom.com with Dave Epstein.
Winter solstice, the celestial start of New England's "season of rest", occurred only a few weeks ago. Many more days will pass, increasing in length imperceptibly at first, until we notice the first signs of plant life breaking dormancy.
In our harsh New England climate relatively few homeowners pay attention to their gardens during the winter months, and that's a shame. Most people only become aware of the possibilities for dormant-season color in their yards when they chance upon a winter garden that contains plants like I describe here. And by the time people start visiting their local garden center next spring, many of these plants will have begun pushing out new foliage, their growing-season features outpacing their unique winter beauty.
Obviously the evergreens (pine, spruce, yew and cypress, for example) are the main garden features this time of year. But when we supplement evergreens with colorful stems and branches, winter can be transformed into one of the more interesting seasons in your landscape. Here are examples of some plants with contrasting stems and branches.
The native Canoe Birch (Betula papyrifera), with its strikingly white bark, is commonly seen in this region's woodlands, especially in colder regions. In your garden younger trees need a few years for their bark to display their clearest white (the trunk must reach several inches diameter). Gray birch (Betula populifolia) and European Silver Birch (Betula pendula), as their common names indicate, offer grayish-white bark as young saplings, but both species mature smaller than Canoe Birch. Perhaps the brightest white of any birch is Betula utilis jacquemontii, the Whitebarked Himalayan Birch, on which even the youngest twigs are pure white. Sadly this tree is a virtual "magnet" for the Bronze Birch Borer, making it consequently short-lived in this region.
One of the choicest birches for this region is River Birch (Betula nigra), available in several cultivars or as a seedling tree. Although it appears more salmon-ivory than white, this species makes a distinctive display in the landscape, its bark becoming deeply furrowed and shaggy brown as it matures. River Birch is well adapted for most any site, including urban sites, heavier and packed soils, as well as well-drained sandy soils. In The Urban Tree Book Arthur Plotnik describes the tree this way:
"River birch bark is naturally platy or flaky; in cultivated varieties, it peels in colorful flakes of brown, salmon, peach, orange, and lavender - as if some child had gone wild with crepe paper."
The River Birch cultivar 'Heritage' has become a landscaping standard in New England as a pest resistant large tree. Look also for the cultivar 'Little King', a smaller and slower growing form, well suited for smaller gardens and a Cary Award winner.
Three additional colorful-bark plants are highly recommended for their multi-season appeal, all also Cary Award winners. The Seven-son Flower (Heptacodium miconioides), a recent introduction from China, is an unusual fall-flowering small tree with exceptional silvery winter stems with vertically-exfoliating tawny-grey strips – particularly striking against freshly-fallen snow. Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamelia koreana), a June-flowering beauty, displays winter bark with exfoliating plates of pale orange, green and gray, contrasting effectively when grown against a dark green background. Cornus kousa, the Korean Dogwood, develops multicolored grey and silvery bark that peels in plates to reveal orange-tan under-bark tones. A tree with multiple seasons of appeal, this species features long-lasting flowers in June along with strawberry-like red-orange fruit in autumn.
All these colorfully-barked trees and shrubs can be effective grown as single stem trees, in a clump form with multiple trunks or low-branched, retaining their lower stems. They generally perform best in full sun and tend to stand out most clearly when backed by evergreens. When the location is appropriate they can also be spectacular standing alone or silhouetted against the sky. During winter, positioning attractive stems like these so they are framed by a window can increase the pleasure of being confined indoors.
Take time this winter to identify where some of these beauties would look attractive in your yard – and once the spring planting season finally comes around, make them part of your winter garden for many years of enjoyment.