Branches against the sky

In winter, trees display a more open, sculptural silhouette

December 31, 2006|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to The Sun

A leafless beech (Fagus) inked across a Monet sunset, frost-glazed stems framed in a January sun. Winter silhouettes, the bones of the landscape, are one of the botanical gifts of the season.

"A big American sycamore [Platanus occidentalis] with its white bark and beautiful shape is majestic against a winter sky," notes Sylvan Kaufman, conservation curator at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely.

"Eye-grabbing things like massive white oak [are] fabulous against a winter sky," agrees John Frett, director of the University of Delaware Botanic Garden and professor of landscape horticulture.

Yet, while impressionist skies offer dramatic backdrops, intimate spaces can hold intriguing winter silhouettes, too. For example, a small crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia) becomes an exquisite etching against a garden wall. A boxwood (Buxus), obscured in summer behind foliage and bloom, quietly emerges in winter to anchor a space, its outline still discernible despite a mantle of snow. Although silhouettes are sometimes serendipitous, often they're the result of careful planning.

"You consider form, texture and placement," says Phil Normandy, plant collections manager at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton.

Form can be upright and opaque, as with pyramidal firs and pines. Or it can be open and spreading, as with deciduous trees like horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) or the supplicating branches of white oak (Quercus alba). The pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) with alternating branches looks like its tiered namesake.

"And the black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) cultivar `Umbraculifera' has this kind of contorted umbrella shape that's stunning in winter," says Frett.

A silhouette's texture can be clean-lined, solid, densely twigged, like a vast spider's nest, feathery, spiked and more. Trees with contorted branches, like those of `Harry Lauder's Walking Stick' (Corylus avellana `Contortia') and the twisted beech (Fagus tortuosa) look like frozen ancient crones, while weeping trees offer graceful silhouettes that dance with every breeze.

"For example, the small Katsuratree [Cercidiphyllum japonicum] creates a wonderful cascading look," says Frett.

Often form and texture coincide. For example, the feathery edges of a cedar (Cedrus) add texture to its solid tapering outline. The Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus), broad and thick to its twig ends, looks like a stolid guard protecting the shrubbery. Both form and texture help determine effect. Clean-lined uprights tend toward formality, while supple-limbed and textured trees are more casually elegant.

"The Himalayan white pine [Pinus wallichiana], which has a needle about twice as long as our native white pine, is a much more graceful shape because of the long needles," says Frett.

Placement means considering where a winter silhouette will show - against an unadorned wall, the house, a stretch of lawn?

"You can even plant for outline against a borrowed landscape," says Normandy. "Say there's a giant Tuliptree [Liriodendron tulipifera] in your neighbor's yard. You can complement that with a Japanese maple [Acer japonica] in your own garden."

Also consider how light will either play through branches, throw a shadow across a buff-colored lawn or outline the tree in its rising and setting.

"Any tree that you situate so you look through it to the sunrise or sunset will be impressive," says Frett.


Adkins Arboretum

12610 Eveland Road

Ridgely, MD


Environmental Concern Inc.

P.O. Box P

201 Boundary Lane

St Michaels, MD 21663


John S. Ayton State Tree Nursery

3424 Gallagher Road

Preston, MD 21655



Behnke's Nursery

1130 Baltimore Ave. (Route 1)

Beltsville, MD 20705


Homestead Gardens

743 W. Central Ave.

Davidsonville, MD


Cylburn Arboretum

4915 Greenspring Ave.

Baltimore, MD 21209


U.S. National Arboretum

3501 New York Ave.

Washington, DC 20002


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