In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
January, 2012
Regional Report

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Crape myrtle pruning done right allows bark to get shaggy without creating knots.

Choose Interesting Trees

Gardeners should be heralded for their desire to create unforgettable landscapes that are rich in details and different from the norm. One way to make sure your garden will be memorable is to include trees that shed their bark or show off wild thorny parts.

Grow Shaggy
The ability of tree bark to grow ridges or shed its bark in colorful strips is not something dreamed up by plant breeders, although they often capitalize on it. For example, many crape myrtle trees (Lagerstroemia) have peeling bark, but none is more dramatic than the hybrid cultivar 'Natchez'. This quality was sought out to enhance the beautiful white flowers and huge tree size, and we enjoy it through the process of selection by breeders. The sight of its dark red bark with curlicue, gray sections peeling off is stunning all year long but especially when the tree stands proudly leafless against the winter sky.

Maple trees can display equally dramatic shaggy bark on large and small varieties. The huge native red maple, Acer rubrum, boasts dark gray trunks that peel with lighter patches. In clusters out in the woods, the vision of these trees is a chaotic, three dimensional treat. Planted as singles or pairs in the garden, you get to see each zig and zag of the pattern up close, and it is almost as beautiful as the first sight of their red flowers and new growth.

Silver maple, A. saccharinum, grows into thick gray trunks with lighter and darker crooks and crannies. This is not a tree for the front yard or anywhere near the house, since its wood is rather brittle and limb drop is common. Enjoy it from across the property as its shaggy trunks are readily visible. Some Japanese maples can also be counted on for winter bark color, including varieties with red or coral stems that are most unusual.

River birch, Betula nigra, seems to some to be overplanted, and its shaggy bark is the main reason for its popularity. At times the bark is so curly it could have been styled professionally. For a crazy quilt of trunk colors, grow lacebark elm, Ulmus parvifolia, which peels back like sassafras to reveal a rainbow of red, green, gray, and brown underneath. Not as popular but equally easy to grow and wildly dramatic are good old American planetree or sycamore, Platanus occidentalis and bald cypress, Taxodium distichum. Consider them seriously when planning for constant, stable landscape elements that positively take on airs once their leaves drop.

Go for Thorns
When citrus trees die, it is often only the top of the tree above the graft that succumbs. New sprouts pop up from the base of the tree with leaves that look like a citrus and small, sour fruits. The branches are nasty with thorns, unless you put them to good use. Instead of tossing the trees, you can use them to graft on more citrus or let them form an impenetrable thicket. One gardener I know collected and lined his vegetable patch with these not quite dead citrus. By pruning regularly for a few seasons, he created a living fence that he says keeps the bunnies out of the garden and even deters deer.

Holly trees will not be so effective physically, but a row of them makes a formal, imposing statement visually with unfriendly, prickly leaves. Tropical gardeners who enjoy thorns will want rose cactus, Pereskia grandifolia. Tan trunks stand in bold contrast to huge whorls of black, spidery spines that deter predators from the succulent leaves and stunning flowers held high above them. Whether you use them for practical purposes or simply to add a conversation piece to the garden, thorny plants will be stalwarts and offer a striking change from those that look or feel soft and supple.

Cultivate Interest
To enjoy a grand show, choose a diversity of trees for their bark, thorns, and other features like rugged texture and bold color. Give each tree enough space to grow to its potential, and avoid crowding plants around its base unless they will be leafless or dormant in winter. Because most of these tree trunks develop their interesting barks as they mature, it is important to avoid unnecessary tree pruning after their first two years in the garden. Fortunately, trees of every sort that are well-shaped in the early years seldom require any pruning to hold strong form. To allow the trunk to develop can be as simple as removing lower branches as early as possible and selecting a few strong canopy branches that can support plenty of side branches as the tree grows. Then you can watch the intriguing natural slips, peels, and gnarly bark come along to decorate the garden all year long, but especially in winter. To paraphrase the sages, may you live with interesting trees.


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