The Perennial Garden’s Winter Bones

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The Perennial Garden’s Winter Bones

Categories: Blog, Garden Guru

Our Perennial Garden displays some of the best garden design at Powell Gardens. At the age of 17 many of its plants are beyond youthful size. These backdrops, or “walls,” of the perennial beds make the garden a delightful, human-scale experience. Take a virtual tour with Senior Gardener Jay Priddy and share some of his favorite winter plants. We hope this entices you to come out and pick your own favorites soon!

Winter tests the character of gardeners and reveals the character of so many garden plants overlooked in the exuberant green chaos of summer. For us it is a time of planning, preparing, dreaming, and waiting. For the hardy survivors and hardened skeletons of last year’s growth it is a time of dreaming and waiting as well – dreaming of rebirth and waiting for spring. Even in the absolute “dead of winter” a garden can be a fascinating and rewarding place to spend a day. This is on average the coldest week of the year, but a visit now can reveal the bare bones on which every garden is built. We will follow the “planting pyramid” from perennial grasses to shade trees on this tour. Please join me and enjoy the views!

The low angle and silvery light of the winter sun provides wonderful backlighting for ornamental grasses while illuminating their seedheads to incandescence. Morning Light Miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’) literally glows in the late-afternoon light. One of my new “favorites” is Wind Dancer Lovegrass (Eragrostis elliotii ‘Wind Dancer’) with its delicate seedheads held aloft on wiry stems that have survived the worst winter has thrown at it. Yet the big and bold stalks of the Ravennae Grass (Saccharum ravennae) steal the show for me. These 10-12 foot stalks have weathered the snow, ice, wind, and rain to remain picture-perfect in January. This one is protected by a heavy load of mulch for protection.

Another of the senses pleasantly stimulated at this time is hearing. Our seemingly permanent Missouri breeze creates a broad range of sounds in the depth of winter. The high-pitched tenor of the finer grasses like Miscanthus are countered by the deeper baritone of the reed-like grasses whispering in the wind. The rattle of leaves, the occasional warbling and twitter of birds, and the gentle “shushing” of pine surf add their pleasing notes to an otherwise peaceful setting ripe for relaxing contemplation.

Harry Lauder’s Walkingstick

Seven Sons Flower

China Snow Peking Lilac

Some plants really show their finer qualities when undressed. The structure and architecture of many woody plants and the color and quality of their stems and bark can be appreciated best when they shed their cover of leaves and shine for us in winter. Harry Lauder’s Walkingstick Contorted Hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) is a prime example. A plant that draws puzzled looks when leafed-out in summer becomes a stunning specimen of spaghetti-like, twisted branches that awes me every time I see it in winter. Less is more indeed! Did you know this plant was named for a famous vaudevillian who carried a crooked walking stick as a prop on stage? Many examples of beautifully colored exfoliating bark are also accentuated in the winter. Our Seven Sons Flower (Heptacodium miconioides) displays shaggy flags of brown and white bark flapping in the breeze with exposed, smooth, bone-white trunk and branches glowing in the winter light. This is difficult to appreciate once the leaves arrive and the surrounding plants rise up. Another subtle stunner one might miss in other seasons is the bark of the China Snow Pekin Lilac (Syringa pekinensis ‘China Snow’). The picture above and on the right shows the gorgeous cinnamon-brown, tissue-like exfoliating bark and the contrasting white horizontal dashes of the lenticels quite well. Notice how the light reflects off the smooth trunk. This alone is worth the chilly walk through the gardens!

Some evergreen shrubs and trees become chameleons as the temperatures dip down and winter challenges their defiance. The Evergreen Tapestry Hedge in the Perennial Garden has such a plant. Berckman’s Golden Oriental Arborvitae (Thuja orientalis ‘Aurea Nana’) draws attention in all seasons with a remarkable lime-green coloration in spring and summer and a russet blush developing on the branch tips as winter deepens. Oriental arborvitaes always remind me of exotic corals growing on dry land and this one is no exception. Alan designed this hedge with a unique combination of three evergreens in triplets that do not repeat throughout the entire sinuous line of shrubs. The contrasting rich green of Emerald Sentinel Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virgiana ‘Emerald Sentinel’) and the blue-green of Blue Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana ‘Glauca’) is lovely in every season.

Small trees can also lend interest to the winter landscape when their bare branches are exposed against the bright blue winter sky. A constant favorite among staff and visitors is the Scarlet Curls Hankow Willow (Salix ‘Scarcuzam’) dominating a curve on the walkway in the heart of the Perennial Garden. This gal is an unrepentant show-off all year. Long, twisting tendrils of silky willow leaves draw “oohs” and “ahhs” in spring and summer, but it is when she disrobes that the fantastic structure of this tree is revealed. Look up when you walk beneath her and you will be rewarded with a mass of coiling branches tapering to hair-like twigs outlined against the sky. Be sure to note the other small trees like redbuds and dogwoods before they “dress” for spring.

High on my list for winter interest are our groves of Common Persimmon trees (Diospyros virginiana). As they mature the rough, crackled pattern on the rugged bark becomes deeper and more interesting (even to lichens as the picture above demonstrates). Very few woodies can match this one in the wow-what-a-bark! category. I also admire the form and shape of the groves. These trees are interconnected (like aspens) and this relationship is made evident in their growth pattern.

Evergreen trees are another backbone of a well-balanced garden design and a welcome statement of color in any winter setting. The Japanese White Pines (Pinus parviflora) we have in the Perennial Garden are a wonderfully exotic addition in my view. Their horizontal, uneven branching and spiky tufts of blue-green needles provide a more formal, oriental twist that is admired by many visitors. With so many options in small evergreen trees this is a good area to experiment with color, shape and form. We have many examples throughout Powell Gardens for you to observe and choose the best choice for your own garden. By the way, winter is an excellent time to do just that!

Our final stop on this tour belongs to the “big boys” of the garden – the large shade trees. Once these guys leaf out and become giant green canopies in our woodland beds it is much more difficult to observe and admire their basic structure. On the picture above at left we have what Alan observed as a “dance” of Swamp White Oaks (Quercus bicolor) outlined by the powder-blue sky. I can almost imagine one tapping the other on the trunk with the query, “Would you like to dance?”. What do you see? Do not forget to look up as you walk through the garden. Each tree – whether hickory, oak, tuliptree, or korean evodia – has its own personality as expressed through form, size, shape, or color. Some convey strength, power, and age. Others reflect elegance, grace, and youth. Look up and maybe you will see the halfmoon looking down with a little jealous peek into this wonderful winter landscape at Powell Gardens.

All photos taken by Alan Branhagen on January 15, 2008
Virtual Tour text by Jay Priddy, Senior Gardener — Perennial Garden