Plants that Bare it All for Beauty: Going Leafless in the Winter Garden

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden



 “The plum tree, dwindling, contains less of the spring; but the garden is wider, and holds more of the moon.” Some thirty years ago, when I first read this old Zen saying, it spoke to my heart about the gifts that are available to us when we learn to embrace the cycles of nature. The plum tree’s blossoms may have withered away long ago, and its leaves may have scattered to the four winds, but instead of feeling empty, the garden is now filled with a beautiful light. I think of this often at this time of year, as my own garden opens to the sky above after shedding its cover of leaves. In fact, there are many plants that really come into their own after their leaves have blown away. Their bare branches make them stars of the winter garden.


I tend to separate the deciduous plants with “winter interest” into two categories: those with interesting bark and those with strong forms. Sometimes you can find both qualities in one plant, like the deservedly popular Crape Myrtle. Crape Myrtles come in a huge range of forms, from tiny plants suited to hanging baskets all the way up to trees that grow thirty feet tall. The smooth skin-like bark of the Crape Myrtle is incredibly sensuous to the touch and, if the tree is properly pruned, it can look as graceful as a free-flowing piece of modern sculpture, especially when illuminated by the winter sun.


Crape Myrtles should be chosen based on the size that you wish them to grow to, the color of their blooms, and for their disease resistance. Most of the “Indian name” varieties are excellent; choose from Zuni, Cherokee, Seminole, Natchez, Tuscarora, and Catawba to name but a few.


By the way, there is a lot of misinformation and hype about the pruning of crape myrtles, with some folks calling any pruning “crape murder.” This is an overreaction to the raw butchery performed by too many homeowners. My advice is simple: never “top” the trees and use a very light hand when trimming them back. Prune out the spent flowers or seed pods, any crossing branches, and the small twiggy growth that will not support new wood. Most importantly, before you cut off any branch, imagine how the plant will look without it. You should strive for balance and a natural kind of grace. Pruning should be done in February.


A native plant with smooth skin-like bark is the Mexican or Texas Persimmon (Diospyros texana). This is a tough little tree that grows throughout the Hill Country and South Texas. Usually growing to about fifteen feet in height, it can on occasion stretch to nearly thirty feet tall. I love the silvery gray color of the bark and the intricate branching habit of this plant. One of the most beautiful specimens of Mexican Persimmon that I have ever seen was only about six feet tall and had been pruned like a bonsai.


The Mexican Plum (Prunus mexicana) is our equivalent of the flowering plums of Japan. When young, these native fruit trees have gorgeous cherry-like bark. When mature, the bark on the trunks gets a little gnarly, but the outer branches retain that smooth reddish quality of the cherry trees. The early spring blossoms appear before the leaves and are deeply fragrant.


There are several large shade trees with striking bark. The newest entry in this field is the Mexican Sycamore (Platanus mexicana). Mexican Sycamore is closely related to the common American Sycamore, but is much better adapted to the caliche and limestone-laden soils of the Texas Hill Country and is said to be much more drought tolerant and disease resistant. Like its American cousin, the Mexican Sycamore grows to be very tall (up to sixty feet) and has beautiful peeling “camouflage” bark that absolutely glows in the winter light. The downside to any of the Sycamores are their large leaves, which make quite a mess in the fall. But for a fast growing giant, this seems to be a great choice for Central Texas gardeners.


I garden under a grove of another species of large shade trees, the Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia). Every winter I grudgingly admire the wonderful patchwork quality of this tree’s bark and their smooth flowing trunks. I say grudgingly because even though this plant is very attractive, and always draws ooohs and aaahs from visitors to our garden, they are also very weedy and I spend a good part of every year pulling out thousands of little Lacebark Elm seedlings. Be that as it may, if you use Lacebark Elms to shade lawn spaces and not garden spaces they are a great choice because you can simply mow down the seedlings.


The Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a wintertime star not because of its bark, which is actually quite attractive, but because of its striking architectural form. I love this tree in every season of the year. But in the winter, after it sheds its soft fern-like foliage, you can best appreciate its sturdy nature. This Texas native has a perfect pyramidal form when young and a trunk that grows ramrod straight. When it matures, the branches spread out to create a cathedral-like canopy supported by the massive column of the trunk. Walking between the soaring trunks of these trees with the strong clear light of winter falling through the branches is a magical experience.


Perhaps my favorite deciduous tree for Central Texas is the Possumhaw Holly (Ilex decidua). This small (usually less than fifteen feet tall) native holly loses its leaves for a few short weeks every winter to reveal branches laden with bright red berries. The berries are a favorite food of Mockingbirds and Cedar Waxwings and provide a wonderful touch of color during the quiet winter months.


Don’t be too impatient for the rush of springtime greenery. Take the time to embrace the quiet charm of winter, bare branches and all.





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