Bare Bones

Bare Bones

October 16 2020

I’ve always hated winter-long dark days where I struggle to keep my spirits up and nothing is growing. Taking a walk in a snowy woods is magical, I know, but in my mind it can’t match the glory of the other seasons. And winter is long in Montana, really long!

Recently, though, a dear friend and fellow gardener made a comment to me that opened my eyes to something I had been missing. It was late November, an unusually nice day, and we were walking down the streets of her home town. She noticed a birch tree, not a leaf on it and said, “I just love the trees in winter when you can see the bare branches and bark.” After I recovered from my bout of incredulity, I realized she was right. Absolutely right-it was beautiful with it’s white bark and stark branches against the blue sky. Perhaps we can find beauty if we just know how to look for it.

In a similar vein, I was not long ago privileged to see bristlecone pines, some of them over 3,000 years old, and the one I liked best was dead. It’s twisted trunk, windswept branches, and convoluted shape were an incredible testimony to life, even (maybe especially) without any needles or bark whatsoever.

Since I am looking at my gardens through a winter lens for nearly half the year, it might be in my best interests to not only learn to appreciate the sculptural shapes and bark colors of dormant plants, but even take that into consideration when planting and designing. The only time it had ever crossed my mind to buy a tree based on the structure of it’s branches was when I was coveting a pagoda dogwood in a Japanese garden. I have seen these trees at a local nursery and will undoubtedly succumb to the charm of their horizontal layered branches one day, though I remain doubtful they can thrive in our climate.

It is for winter interest that I leave many perennials, such as the tall grasses and coneflowers, standing through the winter. For pretty bark on shrubs there are red twig dogwood and the peeling bark of nine bark. The aforementioned birches have beautiful white bark, but my favorite tree for bark is prunus maackii or Amur chokecherry. It has stunning reddish to golden brown exfoliating bark and the added bonus of white chokecherry like flowers and small black edible fruit for the birds- or us.

It would be easy to confuse the Amur chokecherry with another tree, the Amur maackia, because the names are so similar, both having been named by a 19th century Russian naturalist, Richard Karlovich Maack. They are also both native to Manchuria, Siberia, and Korea, thus the name Amur-a river that is the boundary between Russia and China. However, they belong to two completely different plant families, Prunus Maackii to the rose family (rosaceae) and Amur Maackia to the pea family (fabaceae) and have distinctly different flowers, leaves and fruit. Just think of single roses and hips as opposed to peas and pods.

Every once in a while, if you are lucky, someone special comes into your life and helps you to see something wonderful. Thank you, dear friend.

Prunus maackii, Amur chokecherry, zone 2-6, 20’-30’ tall and wide