Arboretum’s winter attractions

Susan Safford

Homegrown meets Sunday, Jan. 17, from 3 to 5 pm at Agricultural Hall. Under discussion: seed ordering, seed sowing, catalogue exchange.

Arboretum’s winter attractions

If there is wintry weather, one of the nicest things is being able to enjoy it. It helps to have clear skies, beautiful surroundings, and adequate winter apparel; add congenial company and you are all set, birding binoculars optional. Twenty-two chipper walkers met Nancy Weaver and Karin Stanley at the Polly Hill Arboretum Saturday morning for the Arboretum’s monthly guided winter walk.

Winter pares everything down. Sunlight is pallid. The color palette is subdued, though nevertheless thrilling. Winter stillness seems quieter. Air seems purer: less encumbered, empty of scent and particles. Distractions of flower and foliage are fewer. All of which sharpens the senses.

The areas near the visitor center contain so many evergreens that they seem an unseasonable, intensified green. Nevertheless, differences prevail among the broadleaf evergreens: rhododendron leaves curl limply, dark and dull in the cold, while the hollies’ glisten and hold themselves briskly to the sun.

Interesting specimens, like Edgworthia chrysantha and Cornus sanguinea ‘Winter Flame,’ make claims upon the eye. The Edgworthia, planted in several spots near the visitor center, features ball-like flower buds at the ends of bare stems. Nearby, the muscular trunk of Stewartia monadelpha writhes in brown torment. The cluster of glowing ‘Winter Flame’ strikingly fronts the deeply green, gleaming, and heavily berried backdrop of Ilex ‘Pernella,’ a Polly Hill introduction. Nearby a corylopsis seems on the verge of bud-break. One silently implores: be sensible!

Battalions of hungry robins cruise through the Holly Park in search of fruit. They can strip everything in sight in a matter of days. Holly berries are an important wildlife food. The berries of the various Ilexes are mildly toxic (“Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America,” Turner and Szczawinski, Timber Press, 2003). They are not the first-choice foods of wintering birds, significant because they are available later, in the crunch, when more desirable food is gone.

Snowfall allows for better tracking: which plants attract deer and rabbits? Snow has laid flat the remains of forbs and grasses in the west field, normally delicate attractions in their own right (see the classic winter walker’s guide, “Weeds in Winter,” Lauren Brown, Norton, 1976.)

Much inspection of lichens and seed capsules follows, as we make our way around the western reaches of the collection; both are present at all times in other seasons, but they are either obscured or their minor details are too modest to compete for attention when there is so much else to observe.

A beach plum, whose hoary tufts of lichen would hardly have elicited comment in summer, is now remarked over. It is slated for removal: PHA policy on deaccessions is that they are always substantiated, justifiable, and well thought-out. This plant’s age or location has caused failure-to-thrive and now its yellow flagging represents a planting opportunity for another specimen.

We search for signs of flowering on the witch hazels, which ring the walls of the northwest corner of the west field. One year ago hybrid forms were abundantly in bloom by now, but today the plants are prudently restraining the fragile thread-like blossoms inside their protective bud scales, awaiting a more propitious time (greater likelihood of pollinators). The branches are, however, loaded with many recently spent seed capsules.

Visually, there is something unavoidable about magnolias and magnolia buds, especially in a stripped-down winter landscape. They draw the eye unerringly to themselves, furry flocks of ambiguous entities perched among the twig-scapes.

Pausing before the Magnolia macrophylla, or perhaps gathering round its altar, we venerate an Ur-tree, so strong is its presence and texture. Sketch it with a few economical lines here and there: you could have a Matisse. It was planted in the shelter of evergreens, which emphasize the magnolia’s stark, chalky outline and render votive its splendid terminal buds.

We make for the middle gate of the Playpen, past the spiny spectacle of the bizarre gymnosperm that is the monkey-puzzle araucaria, and down the towering ranks of windbreak conifers planted years ago by Polly Hill to create a microclimate for the Playpen, in what was the coldest corner of the property.

Practicing the old saw as we file past the majestic evergreens, we memorize the upright cones and flat arrangement of rounded needles: “Firs are Friendly,” and dangling cones and all-around arrangement of sharp needles: “Spruces are Spiky.” Losses among original trees have created further planting opportunities, including the recently planted Cunninghamia lanceolata ‘Glauca,’ a hardier China fir.

Inside the Playpen, shaded by deciduous woodland to the south and windbreak to the north, the snow, blanking the enfilade to a mystery of quirky shapes, lingers, but we do not. Aucubas and a November-blooming Ackerman camellia, ‘Winter’s Hope’ get a look as we exit via the east gate, passing into the relatively open area that hosts oaks, stewartias, hickories, firs, and hedges of azalea adjacent to the arboretum’s Littlefield property with its infrastructures.

We pass by the hornbeam tunnel, lofty dawn redwood, parrotia, and camellias, heading across to the kousa dogwood alleé. Exclamations emphasize the differences between discrete sister trees. Habit, twigginess, and exfoliating bark all become more obvious in winter.

It is quickly up the north field, past the dumpling Sargent crabapples and other, taller ones, including the graceful bestseller ‘Louisa,’ introduced by Polly Hill to honor her daughter. More not-yet flowering witch hazels screen the road; we cross to the vibrant stand of winterberry, still berried, including a non-suckering form, the possum haw, Ilex decidua.

When we near the clematis bower, now bereft of flowers and vines, our jaunt comes to its conclusion. Under bright sunshine the magnolias surround us, dynel-furred buds watchfully gleaming.