Stars of winter garden theater Show: Berries, bark, interesting shapes step forward while warm-weather performers rest.

February 23, 1997|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

We can pretend all we want, but spring isn't here yet.

We can go through the seed and plant catalogs one more time, start some flats of vegetable and summer flower seedlings. We can cut some forsythia stalks, put them in water to force them to bloom, and in a week or so have yellow blossoms in the house, and then tell ourselves that winter is over. A few brief thaws have coaxed a few bulbs, such as crocuses, winter aconite and snowdrops to bloom outside and even brought forth some daffodil shoots. But real, irreversible spring -- with daffodil blooms, saucer magnolia (Magnolia X soulangiana) and ornamental fruit tree blossoms, and the miraculous leafing of countless trees and shrubs -- is still a while off.

The easiest thing to do while we wait is enjoy the subtle show that's going on outside. There are shrubs and trees that look better right now, in winter, than at any other time, that are prettiest or most interesting when unadorned by leaves.

Outstanding evergreens

Some evergreens, such as hollies (Aquifoliaceae) or Magnolia grandiflora, stand out now, not having to share the spotlight with deciduous plants. Some deciduous hollies, such as winterberry, (Ilex verticillata) are even more arresting, says George Mayo, sales manager of Bluemount Nurseries in Monkton and president of the Maryland Nurserymen's Association. The winterberry is thick with red or yellow berries now.

There are many hollies in this part of the U.S.; with green or variegated leaves that can add winter interest to the garden or general landscape. Two evergreen hollies -- inkberry (Ilex glabra) with black berries, and sparkle berry, a hybrid of Ilex serrata and Ilex verticillata, with red berries, are heavy bearing, adds Kitten Richardson, former executive secretary of the National Holly Society. The orange or brick-red berries of the pyracantha also stand out now, as do the berries of the Nandina domestica. The berries of all these plants provide a feast for birds.

An outstanding sight among evergreens is the blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica var. glauca), which at any size is lovely but at full maturity of 120 feet is sensational. Mayo also suggests that we look for Sawara false cypress, (Chamaecyparis pisifera), which has bluish needles that are so dense "they look like clouds," he says.

Peeling bark

Most if not all evergreens have a rough-textured, fibrous bark. Lacebark pine (Sinus bungeana) is a pine with an exfoliated bark, looking as if it's beginning to peel and then changing its mind.

Some of the most interesting plants in winter have remarkable bark. Sycamores, stewartias, crape myrtle, paper bark maples, river birches and red twigged dogwood all fit this description. To be subjective, the American sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis L.) is my favorite plant in the winter. The tree grows 60 to 100 feet; its bark is smooth, whitish and mottled and peels off in large thin pieces, exposing brown, green and gray. Its white, ghostly silhouette against a blue sky on a sunny day is a glorious sight this time of year. River birch (Betula nigra L.), with its shiny, papery, silver-gray bark, is almost as stunning, and is the most reliable of the birches in this region. Paper bark maple (Acer griseum) and Chinese Stewartia (Stewartia sinensis) also have interesting exfoliated bark, which shows pinkish behind brown. The red-twigged dogwood (Cornus sericea) is a shrub whose bright red branches are especially striking against the snow.

Two smooth-barked, handsome trees in the winter are the crape myrtle and American beech. The crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is peeling and exhibits a dramatic multicolored mottling.

And then there are the trees or shrubs that grow into strange shapes that aren't as noticeable in the spring and summer. The branches of the weeping willow (Salix babylonica L.) droop gracefully. The branches of the contorted willow (Salix matsudana Koidz. cv. "Tortuosa") twist and turn, as do the branches of "Harry Lauder's Walking Stick" (Corylus avellana contorta.) The latter's common name is after a Scottish singer during the '20s who always carried a crooked walking stick. Under a cover of snow especially, it looks like a Calder mobile.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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