Right outside our administration building there are a couple of small trees that go unnoticed during the growing season. They almost resemble the kudzu-draped monsters that we are so familiar with in the south.
From now through the emergence of spring growth, however, these weeping mulberries will stand like statuary, causing everyone to look upon them with awe. Once they've been stripped of foliage they reveal fantastically twisted and gnarled branches that only get better with age. These branches look as though they have an ancient story to pass along.
It's been said by more than one landscape designer that there is so much to enjoy and see in the winter garden once trees and shrubs have lost their foliage. The pertinent question we can ask ourselves is, have we planned for form and structure in our gardens? More often than not, the answer is revealed in the winter
Even if we have not chosen weepers such as the mulberry, bark can play an important role in winter landscapes if the right trees have been chosen.
Take a stroll on a winter morning and notice how the patterns of bark vary from tree to tree. As trees and shrubs get older and grow wider, the bark might peel, split or shed to create a wonderful new look. Some surfaces are smooth, some textured, and beautiful patterns and colors come alive in the winter.
The river birch bark is among the most beautiful. It loses its bark in papery plates, exposing the inner bark that is colored gray-brown to cinnamon-brown. The Heritage variety sheds to white or salmon-white bark.
River birch is well suited to the portion of the landscape that stays a little damp, though they still perform admirably in those portions of the landscape that might become dry in the summer. These can be grown as far north as zone 4.
Crape myrtles, sometimes referred to as the lilac of the South, always have pretty bark that looks as though it has been sanded and polished, and some of the new varieties are outstanding.
The crape myrtle breeding program began in 1962 at the U.S. National Arboretum when researchers crossed Lagerstroemia indica with another from Japan called Lagerstroemia fauriei. One of the resulting traits was dark, reddish-brown, mottled bark.
One of the hybrids is the 21-foot-tall white flowered Natchez, which after about 5 years of age develops a dark, cinnamon-brown, mottled exfoliating bark. The leaves turn orange to red in the fall.
The Wichita is a 16-foot-tall variety with light-magenta flowers. The winter bark is exceptional and sheds to reveal a dark-brown to mahogany coloring.
Another incredible choice for the winter landscape is the lacebark elm (also called Drake elm), which possess some of the most striking bark seen anywhere. They almost look camouflaged with exfoliating sheets in gray, brown and orange.
Whether you want to do a little fall planting or not, you can at least do some evaluating. Walk through your landscape and make some mental notes.
Gertrude Jekyll wrote: "In summertime one never really knows how beautiful are the forms of deciduous trees. It is only in winter, when they are bare of leaves, that one can fully enjoy their splendid structure and design."
Horticulturist Norman Winter is the author of Paradise Found: Growing Tropicals in Your Own Backyard, Mississippi Gardener's Guide and Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South. Readers may write to him at normanwext.msstate.edu.