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Don't ignore the winter beauty of your backyard

January 4, 2013 12:10 am


The gray, tight-barked Carpinus carolinia is called 'muscle wood' because of its sinewy appearance.

Adam Downing is an agent in Virginia Cooperative Extension's Madison County office, specializing in forestry and natural resources. Phone 540/948-6881; fax 540/948-6883; email

WINTER IS generally regarded as a gray, bleak time of year. Green, the color of life, is notably absent from many of our surroundings at this time of year. Yet, the beauty of trees' other features and colors is revealed to discerning eyes in shades of gray, silhouettes of angles, arrays of branch architecture and varied textures cloaked in green most of the year.


Let's start with bark. Every tree species has unique bark and some have particularly interesting bark to add appeal all year around. The most commonly listed "interesting bark" species are those with exfoliating bark such as sycamore, lace-bark elm and crape myrtle.

In addition to these, I would add one of my favorite tight-barked trees, "Carpinus carolinia. This tree's bark is gray like beech but sinewy, like the arm of a body builder, thus the common name I like to refer to it by--"muscle wood." For these bark interest trees, the appeal generally increases with the size of the trunk so you can enjoy it a little more each year.

Angles and silhouettes

The angles of branch attachment to trunk or parent branch is a virtual study in trigonometry, architecture and physics all in one. Consider the branch weight as it extends outward from its point of attachment and the leverage dynamics exerted on that attachment. Then notice how varied the branch angles are within a given tree, and how certain species have different branching habits.

For example, a blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) has nearly right-angle branch attachments. Furthermore, blackgum is a stickler for hierarchy. The relative branch size to the parent branch it's attached to is well-ordered. To find a branch off another branch about the same size would be a rare find.

To find such similarly sized branches on a maple, however, is commonplace. The epitome of this is a branch that becomes almost as big as the trunk to which it is attached.

Maple is a typical example, when grown in the open, of a species that does not respect branch hierarchy. This can cause future problems with branch failure, which is often a winter occurrence. Given the frequent mix of winter precipitation in this part of the world, broken branches from freezing rain are common. Next time you see a broken branch, notice the relative size of the branch to where it was attached.


While our landscape is not dominated by green during this time of year, this hue of life is not entirely absent. Besides the pine and spruce trees we know well, American holly and southern magnolia are two native broad-leafed evergreens unique to the southeastern United States. These and other "evergreens," such as deodoar cedar, provide our winter landscapes with varied shades of green year-round from the blue-green of a Colorado blue spruce to the "forest green" of a short-leaf pine.

Even colors we usually associate with spring, such as red, can be found this time of year. Several crabapple varieties offer the first couple months of winter a persistent red fruit. A cousin to our state tree, the redosier dogwood is not as showy in flowers as the flowering dogwood but has bright red stems all year long. It's a large shrub that makes a great border planting for year-round interest, and its dense growth pattern works well as a living snow fence.

The redosier dogwood, as a native plant, is a great substitute for the non-native invasive "burning bush." Euonymus alatus (winged burning bush) is, unfortunately, a popular item at garden stores and continues to be planted in landscapes, but then proceeds to invade natural areas nearby. It does have neat-looking stems with "wings" but the bright red of the native dogwood is a good tradeoff for a native plant.

Many more tree and shrub species have something to contribute to the view out your window on winter's bleakest days. Chances are your landscape already has a beauty you've yet to discover. Let your gaze linger a while longer on the trees and shrubs now present on your landscape. As your eyes wander, let your mind wonder at the beauty that surrounds us but goes unappreciated.

To discover more about our natural areas, consider joining us for a day of learning at the 10th Annual Landowners Woods and Wildlife Conference on Feb. 23. This day of general and concurrent sessions offers topics for large and small acreage owners alike. More information is available at: tres/upcomingprograms .html or contact your local extension office.

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