Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling

Bark for the Winter Blues

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(L) Acer pennsylvanicum ‘Erythrocladum, (R) Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’

Guest Post by Bob Hill
Somewhere between the January Blahs and a typically mild case of Seasonal Affective Disorder – the aptly acronymed SAD – I find comfort in wandering our yard in mid-winter marveling at the upbeat, happy bark offered by our collection of maple trees, especially our Japanese maples.

What are our choices? Christmas is over. The relatives have gone. The Easter bunny is in hibernation. The new diet is still a pipe dream, politics is looking grim and Mariah Carey can’t remember a tune. Heading outside is the only answer.

Curiosity did lead me to a 45-minute Google search on precisely why some tree bark has such vivid and various colors in winter, with no very specific or satisfying answers offered.

My favorite explanation was one offered by a chemist way too deep into the forest explaining why some bark is brown. A small part of that is duly noted here:

Brown is the lignin, which is the carbohydrate “glue” that sticks all cellulose molecules together. Woody plants have a range of carbohydrates from what we can extract as long chain cellulose, shorter or chemically broken into bits called hemicellulose, and the related carbohydrates we call lignin, all attached together. There is no single formula for each of these categories as there is a kind of continuous increment of groups in each chain, from one to the other.

Right.

All true.

And accurate.

Try not to sit next to that guy at the annual garden club meeting.

None of that, of course, is why we garden. The best answer I could come up with about bark coming in different colors in winter is due to some combination of chemistry, biology, sunlight, seasonal changes, evolution, pigment, persistence, personal artistry, hemicellulose and sheer grit.

That, plus a lighter, brighter tree bark in the winter will enable the tree to better reflect sunlight away during the day, reducing any possible bark expansion. That expansion could be problematic as lower temperatures attack, and possibly crack, the expanded bark at night.

And maples —especially Japanese maples—seem to be the 76 trombones leading this color parade. We have a bunch planted, and I don’t really have a favorite one. In most cases, other than a little research of the subject and tips from gardening friends, I really had no idea what to expect when I planted them. Fun gardening is all about experimentation. And luck. And genetic accidents.

My winter color parade would begin with a small tree with a horrible name, the “Red-Branched Moosewood Maple” or Acer pensylvanicum ‘Erythrocladum’. That’s 11 syllables of winter glory. Another common name for it – and not much of an improvement – is “Whistlewood.” (Shown above, on the left.)

I like it because it’s along the driveway, and right outside our plant room window, where its pink-red-amber bark will light up January’s grayest days.

It is a relative of the straight-up Acer pennsylvanicum, or striped-bark maple. We have one of those, too. Its bark is mostly green-and-white striped, and it needs shade. As it ages, it loses much of it color and vigor, but ours long ago earned its stay. It’s hidden back in our tiny woods with a small herd of hellebores, where it has bonded nicely.

Planted out our kitchen window, albeit off to the right in the partial shade it requires, is the Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’. It’s small, has been transplanted once, and has struggled a bit, but you’d never know it to look at it in January. Its bright red buds add color even beyond the vivid yellow bark. ‘Bihou’ translates to ‘beautiful mountain range.” In June, it’s just another small tree with aspirations.

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(L) Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ (R) Acer griseum

The Japanese have been at this winter-bark-color business for almost 1,500 years, with the Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’, or coral-bark maple, being around since the 1800s. It’s gorgeous. The older bark also mellows with age, but the younger limbs and twigs are vivid in winter, always well worth the walk to go find them.

A near Japanese maple relative in the winter color business, at least in showmanship, is the paperbark maple, or Acer griseum. Truth be told, its curly, exfoliating bark is a delight 12 months of the year. It was a tree made to be planted in front of a sunset. Just stand behind it and watch. Summer or winter.

Retired Louisville Courier-Journal columnist and author Bob Hill is owner of the eight-acre Hidden Hill Nursery & Sculpture Garden near Utica, Indiana. Hidden Hill specializes in rare and unusual plants, whimsy and unfettered moonlight. For more information see hiddenhillnursery.com.

Posted by Bob Hill on January 6, 2017 at 7:10 am, in the category Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling.
1 Comment

One response to “Bark for the Winter Blues”

  1. Chris B says:

    My winter garden is lightened by Salix britzensis. It has the extra benefit of rooting easily, either in pots or just stuck in the ground and kept moist for a few weeks. And young branches are lovely cut and brought inside.

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