Henry Homeyer: Winter arbor favorites, as shared by readers & experts

By Henry Homeyer
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I recently asked a few readers, garden friends and tree experts a question: “What is your favorite tree in winter?” It’s not easy to pick just one, any more than most of us would be willing to name a favorite child. I invite you to think about the question, and perhaps, come spring, you will want to plant one if you haven’t already.

Amur maackia bark is interesting, especially in winter.

Pamela Kirkpatrick of Swansea, Mass., sent me this: “I love the winter landscape, and, next to my family, trees are my greatest love. American holly, which comes into its own in winter, both for its gleanings and the way it reflects light. Beech of any kind, for showing off its muscular trunk when not in leaf. White pine, troublesome as it is with its brittle limbs, because it is home to an owl who returns there every winter and serenades us with his call.”

Lynn Schadd of Cornish, N.H., e-mailed me saying, “Amur maackia is for me the best four season-interest tree in the garden. And right now its magnificent bark is stealing the show peeling, curling, showing off plates of designer colors all of which may be easily seen since the tree has no oak like aspirations of bigness.”

Lisa Lovelette of Waterbury Center, Vt., wrote: “My favorite winter tree is the pine tree when dressed in white. I am a hobbyist photographer and nothing is more beautiful than a stately pine dressed in white when placed in front of a beautiful Vermont sunset, sunrise, or majestic sky… and a rising bright and bold full moon in the background makes the dressed pine a standout.”

Anne Raver of Providence, R.I., is a former NY Times garden writer. Here’s what she said: “My favorite tree is the scarlet oak, or the white oak, or the red oak, any kind of oak. They support hundreds of species of insects, whose caterpillars feed on the leaves, and who provide crucial food for birds. Also, the red and scarlet oaks turn beautiful colors.”

Donnamarie Kelly of Salem, N.H., wrote, “By far my favorite winter tree is the hemlock. When snow-laden, the boughs remind me of ballerina hands dipping delicately downward. Hemlocks are full, projecting a sense of being in the “woods” even when in a simple grove of two or three trees. “

Christine MacManus’ Stewartia bark.

Julie Moir Messervy is a world-renowned garden designer and author of many great garden books. She e-mailed, “Our land in Vermont was an old sheep farm, as were so many. My favorite tree (in winter and also all year long) is a stately White Oak (Quercus alba) that may well date from the 1800s. For me, it’s a ‘Cosmic Tree’ that shades and shields our deck and screen porch from the harsh western sun, while opening its boughs to the cool summer winds. It is home to squirrels, porcupine, and at least 13 types of birds in winter…”

Christine MacManus of Narragansett, R.I., e-mailed, “A favorite winter tree of mine is a neighbor’s Stewartia with its wonderful bark of mottled patterns and colors. I’ve kept my eye on this tree for 40 years and sometimes pull mulch away from the trunk flare. And of course the summer flowers are a bonus too.”

My favorite tree authority, Mike Dirr, author of Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. could not limit himself to just one or two. He e-mailed, saying: “I love Nyssa sylvatica (black tupelo), Fagus grandifolia (American beech), Quercus alba (white oak), Liriodendron tulipifera (Tulip tree) and Quercus bicolor (Swamp white oak) for starters.”

I know Professor Dirr is particularly fond of “majestic trees” – trees that tower over the landscape and last for a hundred years or more, and all of those he mentioned can do so.

JD Lavallee of Henniker, N.H., loves blues spruces, writing: “In the winter, I just loved how the snow is caught in their branches forming beautiful white pillows. And light snows simply add a beautiful dusting of their needles.”

Mike Dirr’s tall Nyssa sylvatica.

Tom Bacon of Hanover, N.H., emailed: “I love the majesty of the hemlocks in general, but the way they hold the snow is beautiful in the winter and just stunning compared to other evergreens.”

As for me, my favorite is the hybrid Merrill magnolia I planted long ago as a specimen tree in the back of the house. I love its smooth gray bark and the fuzzy buds like pussywillows on steroids. Those buds remind me that spring is coming, no matter how cold the weather now. Of the native trees, I love the hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) in winter. The bare branches are fine and delicate, with tiny buds. The lateral branching patterns are so ornate and beautiful that I hung one on the ceiling above my computer.

One last perspective came from my friend Alicia Jenks of Weathersfield, Vt., She noted that American beech trees produce a lovely rustling sound on breezy winter days. The young trees hold their leaves until May, and provide a quiet symphony in winter. And pines make such a soothing song on breezy days, too. So go outside to look – and listen – to the trees. Pay attention, and your trees may surprise and delight you.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeHenry Homeyer's Notes from the Garden

About the Author: Henry Homeyer is a lifetime organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of four gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. You may reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by snail mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish an answer to a question by mail.

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  1. henry homeyer says:

    Hi Phil, You are lucky to have American chestnuts. They are subject to a disease – chestnut blight – that usually kills them. I wonder how old yours are. Thanks for the offer for Jerusalem artichoke, but I am all set!Henry

  2. Phil Atwood says:

    Hi Henry, I think the American Chestnut would be my favorite, because of its versatility. I have half a dozen growing on my land. Also have numerous black walnuts, butternuts, flowering crabapples, apples & pear trees. All planned since we moved to Grafton, VT. I like birches because that supposed Chaga & ash because it splits easy & doesn’t take long to cure. My wife is the gardner & I am the grunt & the disseminator of seeds & sets. We also have caged blueberry bushes, lupine, Jerusalem Artichokes. If you want any let me know, I am happy to share.

  3. Phil Atwood says:

    Hi Henry,
    My dad & brother were loggers & my dad made me go to the woods whenever I had time off from school. At 6:00 AM his voice would announce “ get those pegs on the floor your going to the woods today” . There was no hesitation & no sass, it was a different time. I wasn’t much help, expect to keep a fire going in the winter, until my teen ye