Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Appreciating the winter garden makes for a happier all-season gardener, so this article, written by EMG Mary Free in December 2012, was worth revising and updating.
by Mary Free, Extension Master Gardener
Our gardens may lay mostly dormant in this season, but still there are some herbaceous and woody plants with color, form, and texture that can both surprise and delight in the winter landscape.
As annual flowers succumb to freezing temperatures and many perennials enter a dormant period, one green plant still covers the ground in the woodlands and shade gardens: Polystichum acrostichoides. Also known as Christmas fern, its graceful, finely textured fronds often are used as a seasonal decoration.
Left to right: Polystichum acrostichoides mid-December with Galanthus caucasius in the background, fiddleheads in March, infertile pinnae in April, and fertile pinnae in June, at the demonstration Quarry Shade Garden. Photo © Mary Free
An eastern United States native, Christmas fern grows in a circular clump with its arching fronds reaching about one to two feet high and wide. In early spring, new leaves or fronds emerge in the form of a tight spiral, shaped like a fiddlehead, amidst old fronds that remained evergreen through winter. They expand to reveal pinnae (leaflets) shaped like a socks or ear lobes with bristly, serrated edges. By late spring, spore-containing sori appear on the underside of the upper third of fertile fronds. The non-fertile part of these fronds as well as the sterile fronds, which are narrower and more prone, remain evergreen.
Although Christmas fern prefers partial shade and moist, well-drained soil, it can tolerate more sun with enough moisture as well as drier soils in full shade. For year-round interest, grow this fairly low-maintenance fern in a woodland or Japanese garden, under trees, en masse, as contrast to shade bed perennials, or for erosion control.
Now that deciduous trees are bare (except for those, like some oaks, hornbeam, and beech, with marcescent foliage—dead leaves that remain on the branches through winter), the conifers and hollies that were the backdrops of summer take center stage. Clothed in varied hues of green, their scaly, needlelike, smooth, or glossy foliage is accented with cones or berry-like fruit. However, do not readily dismiss the defoliated deciduous tree or shrub. The aesthetic quality of its bark (as well as that of the conifer) is often overlooked in favor of flower, fruit, and foliage. Yet, for one quarter of the year or more, its bark and shape are on conspicuous display.
Left to right: Cornus florida flowers, fruit, foliage, and bark.
Though a tree may exhibit its beauty through flower and foliage, its character is revealed by its bark. Who cannot marvel at bark and branches that are smooth or furrowed or peeling, or shiny or colorful or mottled, or lenticeled or striped or contorted? For a specimen tree prominently featured in the landscape, the quality of its bark may be especially important to ensure four-season interest. So when selecting a new tree for your property, in addition to its habit and attributes (size, rate of growth, cold-hardiness, heat and drought tolerance, pest/disease susceptibility, etc.) and the site conditions (soil type and ph, moisture, sun/shade, nearby plants, etc.), be sure to take into account the color, texture, and shape not only of its foliage and flowers but of its trunk and branches too.
Trees or shrubs to consider for their unusual or stunning bark
Trees with smooth bark
- Carpinus caroliniana, (American hornbeam), blue-gray bark on fluted trunk remains mostly smooth even as tree ages;
- Fagus grandifolia* (American beech), smooth, light gray bark; and
- Hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel), smooth gray to gray-brown bark.
Left to right: Carpinus caroliniana, Fagus grandifola, Hamamelis virginiana
- Fagus sylvatica (European beech), smooth gray bark. According to Virginia Tech, it is better adapted to Virginia growing conditions than the native American beech.
Trees with deeply furrowed or plated bark
- Cornus florida* (flowering dogwood), square-plated, gray to brown bark;
- Diospyros virginiana* (common persimmon) young, fissured, grayish-brown and orange bark; older, darker bark, described by Virginia Tech Dendrology as having “square scaly thick plates reminiscent of charcoal briquettes (very unique)”);
- Juglans nigra, (black walnut), dark brown bark deeply ridged in a diamond-like pattern;
- Nyssa sylvatica* (black gum), furrowed, gray bark maturing to resemble an alligator hide; and
- Prunus serotina,* (wild black cherry), smooth, lenticeled bark maturing to that resembling burnt chips or burnt corn flakes.
Left to right: Diospyros virginiana, Juglans nigra, Nyssa sylvatica, Prunus serotina
Trees with peeling or flaking bark
- Betula nigra* (river birch), variable, multi-colored barks with some that exfoliate horizontally in curly sheets exposing lenticels;
- Hydrangea quercifolia (oak leaf hydrangea), peeling of older stems reveals the cinnamon under bark of this southern U.S. native shrub;
- Juniperus virginiana (eastern redcedar), scented, gray to red-brown bark that shreds in long, thin strips on often fluted trunk;
- Physocarpus opulifolius (common nine bark), old stems continuously molting in papery strips;
- Platanus occidentalis (American sycamore), mottled, camouflage-color bark that drops with regularity along with fruit and foliage; and
- Taxodium distichum (bald cypress), shallowly ridged and furrowed, reddish-brown bark weathers to gray and shreds in thin strips with age.
Left to right: Betula nigra, Hydrangea quercifolia, Juniperus virginiana,
Physocarpus opulifolius, Platanus occidentalis, Taxodium distichum, Lagerstroemia subcostata var. fauriei
- Acer griseum (paperbark maple), coppery to cinnamon bark tears into large curly sheets that stay on the tree;
- Cornus kousa (Kousa dogwood), exfoliating mature bark, mottled tan and gray;
- Lagerstroemia spp. (crape myrtle), exfoliation reveals smooth under bark of varying colors depending on the cultivar;
- Pinus bungeana (lacebark pine), bark mottled in irregular patches of brown, rust, green, and cream; and
- Stewartia pseudocamellia (Japanese stewartia), exfoliating older, gray bark reveals lighter patches of cream and orange underneath.
Trees with red or bronze stems, or bark
The showy bark of a younger Betula alleghaniensis tree shines in the natural setting of Connecticut College Arboretum. Yellow birch is common in the Appalachian Mountains from New England to the Great Smokies. Video © 2019 Mary Free
- Betula alleghaniensis* (yellow birch), lustrous yellow to amber/bronze to silvery bark with long horizontal lenticels; mature bark deeply grooved peeling in thin rolls); and
- Cornus sericea (red twig dogwood), showy bright red stems in winter with white lenticels. According to the USDA Plants Database, in Virginia C. sericea is native only in Fairfax and Fauquier counties.
Left to right: Betula alleghaniensis, Cornus sericea, Acer palmatum
- Acer palmatum (Japanese maple), bright red to purplish twigs;
- Maackia amurensis (amur maackia), peeling, shiny, coopery-bronze bark;
- Pinus densiflora (Japanese red pine), orange-red stems; young bark peels in thin scales; older bark turns gray, developing plates;
- Prunus spp., reddish to red-brown to bronze bark on younger trees;
- Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’ (Japanese dappled willow), new stems turn red in winter; and
- Syringa reticulata – formerly S. amurensis japonica – (Japanese tree lilac , shiny, cherry-like, reddish-brown bark on younger trees.
Trees with striped bark
- Acer pensylvanicum (striped maple), white longitudinal stripes on a smooth, gray-green bark that ages to reddish-brown. North America’s only native snakebark maple commonly grows in the Appalachian Mountains.
- Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix’ (Phoenix maple), a snakebark maple with white vertical stripes on a background that turns from coral in summer to vibrant red in winter.
- Acer davidii (David maple), young branches turn red in winter; older bark shiny and green with purple-red highlights and jagged white lines; and
- Acer tegmentosum (Manchurian striped maple), white to bluish-green vertical stripes on green bark do not disappear as quickly as on other aging snakebarks.
Trees with contorted shapes
- Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (Harry Lauder’s walking stick), curled and contorted branches.
The next time you walk by a naked tree, stop and take a closer look. Just as flowers may tempt our noses, bark may tempt our tactile senses. You may be pleasantly surprised or even amazed by what you see and feel.
* High wildlife value according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- Except where noted, natives refer to those plants indigenous somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic Region.
- For native fern suggestions, visit Tried and True Plants/Ferns: https://mgnv.org/plants/ferns/.
- For native tree suggestions, visit Tried and True Plants/Trees: https://mgnv.org/plants/trees/.
- For native shrub suggestions, visit Tried and True Plants/Shrubs: https://mgnv.org/plants/native-plants/shrubs/
- For more information: Selecting Landscape Plants: Rare and Unusual Trees, VT Publication 426-604 at http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-604/426-604.html.
- To identify a tree, visit: http://dendro.cnre.vt.edu/dendrology/idit.htm.
Note: Click on images to see enlarged photos, captions, and photo attributions.
On a mobile phone, click on the information symbol (circle with a letter ℹ︎ symbol)