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Tis the Season

Tis the Season

By Tom Cox, Cox Arboretum
Photographs courtesy of Cox Arboretum

Over the past few years I have begun to appreciate the beauty of a garden in winter. This is particularly true when I visit woodland gardens where there tends to be a lot of variety in the landscape. Our arboretum was never intended to be a formal garden where all the boxwoods are neatly trimmed and the layout is symmetrical. Quite frankly, I find repetition boring. With that said, gardens almost always tend to reflect the taste of the originator and that is certainly the case with Cox Arboretum.

While walking around yesterday I began to notice the myriad forms of bark and the idea came to me to share some photos of some of the more beautiful forms. As I walked from tree to tree I began to wonder why nature has created such diversity. Perhaps one reason is that nature intended for us to enjoy trees during all seasons. When I do tree walks with visitors I continue to reinforce the notion that winter is a time to really get out and enjoy nature. There is no grass to mow, not many weeds to pull, no spraying, no hoses to drag around, no high temperatures or humidity to deal with and lots of time to take a stroll. Back when my daughter was younger one of my favorite times was around Christmas when she and I would take a flashlight and walk the arboretum at night. On rare occasions there would be a bit of snow to enhance our walk but the real treat for me was to point out all the cool forms of trees and shrubs that call this place home. I was never quite certain that she enjoyed it or was just humoring me and now that she has her own family in California, the occasions seem to occur less frequently. Like our trees, we humans also have our seasons.

This article is not intended to be long on my words so let’s now let the trees share their beauty. Please enjoy.

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One of the real show-offs in the arboretum is a crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei ‘Townhouse’). This is a selection propagated from a most beautiful specimen at the Raulston Arboretum. This species is one of the parents of the Indian Tribe Series and has an interesting history. The original crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica selections) that were cultivated in the South were from China and Korea. The bloom on these was inferior and they were plagued with powdery mildew which disfigured their foliage. In the mid-1950s, selections of the Japanese crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei) were introduced into Southern gardens because they were more resistant to powdery mildew. Several of these made their way to the Raulston Arboretum and the one pictured here is from one of those original trees. As a footnote, starting in the 1960s, breeders at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., began crossing the two crape myrtle species to bring out the best traits of both. Virtually every crape myrtle on the market today contains parentage from both species. 

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No tree in the arboretum receives more notice from visitors than does the Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum). Its chief attribute during the winter is its peeling, cinnamon to reddish brown bark. On a sunny day the peeling bark glows when backlit by the rays of the winter sun. An added bonus is its dark green trifoliate leaves which turn bright red in the fall. This occurs much later than most maples, thus extending the spectacular array of fall color that we enjoy. This Chinese native was first introduced to the United States by the great plant explorer, E. H. Wilson through the Arnold Arboretum in 1907.

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An unsung hero in the southeastern U.S. is our native river birch (Betula nigra). For those who have been frustrated at the inability in warm regions to grow the beautiful paper birch (Betula papyrifera) that is frequently seen in New England forests, river birch is a good alternative. The tree’s main selling point is its satiny, silver bark that peels to reveal a cinnamon-brown trunk beneath. As the tree ages, the bark becomes a shade darker and a bit more coarse on the lower portion of the trunk. That said, it is nonetheless still attractive. It is the southernmost New World birch and the only birch that occurs at low altitudes in the southeastern United States. Its ability to thrive on moist sites makes it useful for wetland plantings and around ponds.

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Native to Asia, Ehretia dicksonii is an uncommon small tree, even in botanical gardens and arboreta. It has no common name. I like the tree for a number of reasons, chief of which is its mature gray bark which becomes stout and corky over time. The leaves are large, up to 8 inches long by 4.5 inches wide and have a sandpaper texture on top and felty beneath — no fall color. The other principle attribute is its white or slightly yellowish 2 to 4 inch flowers which are borne on the ripened wood of the previous season’s growth. They appear in wide terminal clusters in June and early July. Their sweet, spicy fragrance is so strong as to draw you to its nectar. The ensuing fruit is an orange berry which turns to black before dropping. As it is easy to discern, Ehretia is a four season tree.

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Another four season tree is the native American beech (Fagus grandiflora). This large tree to 80′ is almost never available in local nurseries but is a common tree throughout Georgia. One of its most noteworthy characteristics is the dead leaves that cling to the tree throughout winter and do not drop until the emergence of new leaves in the spring. Depending on your likes, this is either a plus or a detraction — I personally like them. As noted in the photo, its bark is distinctively thin, a smooth, gray color with white mottling throughout. In my youth this was a favorite tree for teenagers to carve their initials in or to carve a heart with boy/girl initials inside.

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