Winter in the Pacific Northwest allows us to see nature disrobed.
From November into March we get to enjoy the sculptural beauty of deciduous trees and shrubs out of leaf. This spectacle is at its peak in January. Autumn debris is raked away; Christmas lights are packed away. The low crawling sun shines its light on and through these powerful forms.
Chattering birds embellish branches, and the acrobatics of squirrels aren’t shrouded in foliage.
Nature’s artful arrangement of branches and twigs juxtaposed against our muted silver skies is horticultural filigree. Low growers form a network over dormant beds or swaths of evergreen ground cover.
A spray of bare limbs and branches against a garden wall or the side of a house complement the architecture like a veil of loose lace over the face of an 18th century beauty. It’s an aesthetic that often goes undiscovered, but once ignited in the psyche, it can become a gentle and pleasing obsession.
In his poem “My November Guest,” Robert Frost celebrates the passions of a somewhat cranky, officious woman with whom he is hopelessly in love.
“She loves the bare, the withered tree….” Frost tells us, attesting to her haughty but endearing ability to savor the subtle.
Once, when I was writing for a native born (and hopelessly geocentric) editor in California, I pitched a story on deciduous trees in winter. “Oh no!” he said in a condescending voice. “Readers don’t want to read about that. Most species here are broad-leafed evergreens … Western privilege trees.”
Western privilege trees? Please … I turned my back, rolled my eyes, but kept my cool. Then this dogmatic editor announced that he’d be going to a remote part of Asia for a month, pretty much out of touch, and his assistant editor would be in charge. His plane was barely off the runway when I pitched the story to the assistant, this time with photographs and a recitation of the entire Frost poem.
I channeled my ancestors, the rolling grandiloquence of the Irish, the showmanship of the Jewish.
It worked! The story got approved and landed in print. Positive comments from subscribers fell on the desk of our Readers Service Department like leaves in October. The real payoff came when one of my sentences was quoted at the annual editorial conference as the the best line of the year: “When I visit a garden in winter and don’t see any defoliated deciduous trees and shrubs, I feel as if I’ve been to an art museum and haven’t seen any nudes.”
Smug as I felt about outfoxing that editor’s California horticultural arrogance, every glowing word I wrote about trees out of leaf was from the heart. I love them.
Oaks, with their massive and marvelous crowns, are among the most spectacular, towering above most everything around them. The delicacy of the deciduous magnolias is striking. Lofty and grand, Magnolia campbellii, M. dawsoniana and M. denudate punctuate the skyline. When it comes to intricacy of branching pattern and winter interest, nothing can surpass the common magnolia soulangeana. Little wonder it appears so often in Chinese scroll paintings.
Smaller, garden-scale trees for naked winter beauty are aplenty. Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei) gifts the garden with its smooth, blondish bark in addition to noble structure.
The bark of Stewartia pseudocamellia is an out-of-leaf eye-catcher with its bark mottled in silver, gray, brown and shades of green. The cinnamon-colored bark of Stewartia monadelpha is equally stunning, shining like polished copper in the winter mist.
Japanese maples are a no-fail choice for year-around interest, not the least of which is their in-the-nude beauty. Several have very colorful bark: Acer palmatum “Sango-Kaku” for vibrant red winter twigs, A.p. “Bihou” for its yellow branches.
Our native vine maple Acer circinatum couples perfect city garden scale with a handsome arrangement of branches and interesting bark. The newly introduced A.c. “Pacific Fire” has creamy yellow and coral red stems to enliven any winter garden.
The dogwoods Cornus florida and C. kousa are known for their bouquets of bare twigs. Their shrubby cousins, the redtwig dogwood (C. stolonoifera) and yellowtwig dogwood (C. s. “Flaviramiea”) will light up the dreariest of January days with vivid bark.
The Pacific Northwest’s mild winters invite planting in all but the few days when the temperature drops below freezing.
Getting plants in the ground now still gives them time to establish before summer heat and drought sets in. They’ll send out roots in what is left of winter and in our cool, moist spring, making the plants more adept at absorbing hot season irrigation.
Now is a perfect time to scout nurseries and make additions to your garden. Nurseries will be sparsely populated with customers, and the staffs are eager to dispense advice.
Offerings will be surprising: dozens of conifers, early flowering trees like Chinese witch hazel and cornelian cherry, a vast array of broad-leafed evergreens and the seductively beautiful sculptural branches of trees and shrubs out of leaf. You’ll likely ask yourself, “With all there is to choose from, what shall I get?”
My advice is simple: Get naked!