The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Their bark is better than their bite (Part 2)

Cercidiphyllum japonicum

January is a great time to think about interesting trees and structure in the garden. When I began making my garden, one of my first objectives was to select trees that would have beautiful characteristics in all four seasons. Gardening in New Hampshire makes the structure of the trees very important because there are no leaves on the trees from October to May.

In 1996, I took a propagation class at the Arnold Arboretum. The instructor, Jack Alexander, led us around the grounds collecting seeds from some of the most beautiful trees that are hardy to New England. One of the trees that he chose was Stewartia psuedocallia. I had six seeds germinate and become viable seedlings. I selected the two plants that seemed the most alike because I intended to plant my two trees symmetrically behind a granite bench in the garden. My trees are now about ten feet tall and are beginning to show fantastic bark that looks like camouflage or perhaps a muscular boa constrictor. When they are placed in front of a dark background the bark is a stunning feature for half the year. They also have camellia-like showy white flowers blooming in early July. Finally, they boast gorgeous autumn foliage with red and orange coloring.

The trifoliate maples, Acer griseum , Acer triflorum and Acer nikonese are all trees that are magnificent features for the winter garden. These maples mature into small trees about 25 feet tall. They have no flowers to speak of but have spectacular red and orange fall foliage. Acer triflorum, is the hardiest of the three and is robust growing in Zone 5. The bark is tan and exfoliates with age. Acer griseum , also known as the paperbark maple, has the most exquisite bark. It has beautiful reddish brown bark that exfoliates in large ribbons. It is slow-growing and takes many years to become an impressive specimen. However, Acer griseum crossed with Acer nikonese, has the unique bark of the paperbark maple with increased vigor. My first experience with the cross was a magnificent specimen along Meadow Road not far from the visitor center at the Arnold Arboretum . Acer griseum x 'Gingerbread' is an excellent hybrid. I finally tracked it down at Twombly Nursery in Monroe, CT. I rented a Uhaul truck and brought a small tree home in 1998. My tree is now over 20 feet tall and lightly shades our terrace.

Heptacodium miconioides, also known as seven sons flower, is a large shrub growing about 15-20 feet tall and is quite hardy. It is a relatively new plant to cultivation. It has white flowers that bloom simultaneously with my sweet autumn clematis vine. After the flowers fade, it has a second "bloom" of reddish purple drupes crowned with showy calyxes which elongate after the flowers bloom. The bark is whitish gray and peels off in long strips.

Cornus officinalis is a little known member of the dogwood family. It is closely related to Cornus mas and has yellow flowers around the time the forsythias bloom in April. The have large red edible fruit in autumn. The tart fruit can be used to make a delicious jelly. My tree is just taking off and I look forward to the year when I will be able to harvest enough berries to make preserves. The bark is considered more handsome than that of Cornus mas. It has a mixture of oranges, grays and browns and slowly exfoliates in small curlicues.


  1. Bravo Governor! Delightful and informative commentary. I'm going to tell my gardner to pay attention to your blog.

  2. Mike, your blog is a great read. I love the description you use. I've never been so interested in tree bark! I love reading you blog and I enjoyed the pictures from your garden. I appreciate that you include your winter thoughts since so much of our focus is on summer months, even though we live in a region that is pretty cold most of the year. I also enjoyed the latin names, thank you for including them. Great job on your resolution


  3. Sam,
    Thanks for the feedback. You come from a long line of excellent gardeners so that means a lot from you!



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