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Bold Bark Bites Winter Garden Blahs

Bold Bark Bites Winter Garden Blahs

By Nancy Buley, Director of Communications, J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
Photographs courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.

Now is the time to behold the winter wonder of trees. Bold-barked beauties take center stage in winter, especially when lit up at night by strategically placed landscape lighting or dusted with a mantle of fresh snow.         

Proving that beauty is a four-season affair, trees in a variety of shapes and sizes shine bright in the winter garden. Worlds apart in appearance and style, all are traffic-stoppers at a time when most trees suffer from the winter blahs. Strong, hard wood and open, upright angled branches protect them from breakage and damage from snow, ice and wind.

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Tom Cox, creator of Georgia’s Cox Arboretum, recommended several of his favorites in the November issue of In the Dirt. His article, ‘Tis the Season, praised one of my top choices for beautiful bark, Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum). Read more about it in Tom’s article, and enjoy this wintertime photo of our recently introduced cultivar, Fireburst® Paperbark Maple (A. griseum ‘JFS KW8AGRI’), above. 

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For warmer climates where Paperbark Maple might not thrive, I suggest Cinnamon Girl™ Maple (Acer griseum x A.maximowiczianum ‘Molly Fordham’). This vigorous, heat-tolerant, pest-resistant hybrid of two trifoliate maples maintains its rich, dark green foliage color through the summer months. Leaves turn to deep crimson and red in autumn. Its wonderful cinnamon colored bark flakes with age and contributes to its all-season appeal.

Lest you think that Paperbark Maple holds a monopoly on papery, exfoliating bark, consider the beauty of River Birch bark:

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City Slicker® Birch (Betula nigra ‘WhitXXV’ PP16573) is a newer selection of River Birch, discovered in Oklahoma. True to its heritage, this handsome cultivar presents lustrous, waxy leaves that are heat and drought tolerant. Exfoliating bark peels to reveal blotchy cream and white bark that shines in the winter landscape.

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Dura-Heat Birch (B. nigra ‘BNMTF’) was selected in Georgia and is a good performer in the Deep South and beyond. Heritage® Birch (B. nigra ‘Cully’) is a proven, widely planted favorite. Cold-climate gardeners should be on the lookout for Northern Tribute® Birch (B. nigra ‘Dickinson’), photo above. This cold-hardy cultivar, selected in Western North Dakota and introduced by North Dakota State University, extends the range of River Birch into USDA Zone 3. Its extraordinary hardiness and tolerance of drought, high pH soils and challenging growing conditions makes it a great shade tree for Zones 3-9. As described on the NDSU website, its “ivory bark exfoliates to copper bronze.” Photo courtesy of NDSU.

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Seven-son Flower (Heptacodium miconioides) is a rugged individual, unique in form, flower, foliage and bark. Unusually strong-textured bark makes it a standout in the winter garden. Attractive year-round, winter is the season when curling ribbons of exfoliating, vertically striped, grey-brown bark create the perfect foil for sparkling, pure white snow.

Glossy green summer foliage is lush and tropical in appearance, and turns yellow in autumn. Narrow pointed leaves are rather thick and strongly veined, and resistant to heat and drying winds. Petite, fragrant white flowers that appear in clusters of seven in late summer are inspiration for the “Hepta-” and “seven son” segments of the Latin and common names. These delicate, star-shaped blooms attract hummingbirds, butterflies, honeybees and other pollinators. After petals drop, the long lasting, ornamental calyxes take center stage, shining bright red to maroon well into autumn.

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Chinese Fringe Tree (Chionanthus retusus) is a small ornamental tree with multi-season appeal. Snow white, lemon-scented flowers steal the show in spring. Appreciated for its heat and drought tolerance and adaptability to varied growing conditions, its dark green summer foliage changes to bright yellow in autumn. Leaves drop to reveal golden-tan, exfoliating bark.

Because trees grown from seed are variable in their growth habit, foliage and flowering character, it’s wise to seek out cultivars for predictable performance. Arnold’s Pride Fringe Tree is a nice tree form with distinctively bronze-gold, peeling bark. Tokyo Tower Fringe Tree is a narrow, columnar form that’s a good fit for small space gardens or beneath utility lines.

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No discussion of swoon-worthy bark is complete without mention of Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia). Smooth, muscular bark is a blotchy patchwork of orange, gray, brown and reddish-brown colors. Remarkable year-round, its bark is especially striking in winter when landscape lighting extends the show into the evening hours. Nestled amidst dark green leaves, its camellia-like flowers bloom from late spring into summer. Autumn triggers a bright medley of red, orange, yellow and purple fall tones. Relatively slow growing, but oh so worth the wait.


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