Piet Oudolf: Meadow Maker – Part One

It was early April 1999, and we were visiting Hummelo in the Netherlands so I could talk with Piet Oudolf and see his garden. I had read his books and followed his burgeoning design career with interest.  Given my childhood love of wild places, I was always more interested in designers who embraced a naturalist ethos and synthesized that into their work, whether purely aesthetic or ecology-based. When we visited Hummelo, I had just finished an in-depth magazine profile on Michael Hough, a seminal member of the mid-20th century ecological landscape movement. Scotland-born Michael had been a student of Ian McHarg (Design With Nature) at Edinburgh’s College of Art and later at the University of Pennsylvania, before founding the University of Toronto’s Undergraduate program in Landscape Architecture, then moving to York University to teach in their fledgling Environmental Studies program and publish his own book, Cities and Natural Process.  Later on this trip, we would visit the botanical garden at Leiden and Ecolonia in Alphen aan den Rijn, below, an experimental housing development whose architecture, landscape, utilities and infrastructure had been built earlier that decade using principles of ecological design.

Ecolonia-Alphen aan den Rijn


The Oudolfs were generous in greeting us. Anja still ran the nursery then, Kwekerij Oudolf with its goddess Flora…..


….. and retail customers were busy buying the plants that the Oudolfs raised to use in Piet’s designs. In time, other Dutch growers would become adventurous in their plant introductions; this fact, combined with the demands of Piet’s business and Anja’s busy schedule accommodating groups wanting to tour the garden eventually caused the Oudolfs to close the nursery and build a studio in its place.

Hummelo-1999-Piet Oudolf-nursery

We toured the garden; as it was early spring, not much was in bloom, but the hellebores and wild phlox were lovely.

Hummelo-1999-Piet Oudolf-hellebores

The Stachys byzantina ellipses were still there, along with the famous yew towers and undulating yew hedges which would later be damaged by flooding. Both features were eventually removed and this garden was planted with sweeping perennials.

Hummelo-1999-Stachys circle

The trial beds were impressively ordered – and vital in teaching Piet how various perennials performed: their hardiness, floriferousness, optimal companions, seedhead properties, pollinator attraction, winter persistence, etc.

Hummelo-1999-plant trial beds

It was still very much a place where the Oudolfs worked as a team to expand and improve the palette of plants, but there were abundant touches of simple domesticity.

Hummelo-1999-Piet Oudolf-dog

Piet graciously posed for my camera at a picnic table in a little enclosed garden surrounded by spring-flowering shrubs.

Hummelo-1999-Piet Oudolf

Then we said farewell and headed off to the nearby garden of Eugénie van Weede at Huis Bingerden, below.  At the time of our visit, Eugénie been holding her International Specialist Nursery Days, a 3-day June plant fair attracting thousands of visitors, for four years. (In 2016, there were 37 exhibitors.)  In turn, her inspiration came from Piet and Anja Oudolf, who had held their own annual Hummelo Open Days (later Grass Days) beginning in 1983. By the mid-1990s, visitors numbered in the thousands. Wrote Piet in his rich memoir Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life, by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury (The Monacelli Press, 2015): “Our idea was to bring people together. Of course we wanted to create some income, but thought it would also be a good idea to bring a selection of growers who share the same interest in plants, as an advertisement for all of us.”   It was Piet Oudolf, seedman Rob Leopold and Piet’s original partner, nurseryman Romke van de Kaa (formerly Christopher Lloyd’s head gardener in the 1970s) — the men she calls her three ‘godfathers’ — who advised Eugénie on the nurseries she should include in her Nursery Days.Eugenie van Weede-1999-Bingerden

Fast-forward 15 years to a lovely day in August 2014, and there I was photographing the Piet Oudolf-designed entry border at my own local Toronto Botanical Garden, as I’ve been doing regularly for more than a decade. Even though I recall my visit to Hummelo with pleasure, my relationship with the entry border feels less like a connection to the Netherlands than an arrow that points right back to my childhood.  A childhood spent in a meadow.

Janet Davis-Toronto Botanical Garden


You Can Take the Child Out of the Meadow….

How does one become a meadow maker?  Perhaps it might happen through sheer neglect: abandoning a plot of land to flowering weeds and long grasses which, through a stretch of imagination, might eventually approximate a reasonably attractive community of plants. Though leaving meadow-making to serendipity rarely achieves satisfactory results, it was nevertheless a meadow of happenstance that became my first intimate connection with nature and, by extension, with gardening. For it was an old field across the road from my childhood home in Victoria, B.C., the one just behind the trees at left that you can’t make out in this photo….

Janet Davis-child-Victoria BC

….  that taught me how Spanish bluebells and English daisies emerged in spring as grasses turn green; how California poppies preferred the stony ground to the rich, damp soil where western buttercups grew, the ones we held under our chins to see who liked butter best.

Ranunculus occidentalis-Western buttercup

Oxeye daisies and horsetails, bindweed, tansy and purple clover: these were the meadow weeds I came to love. As little as I was, I felt at home in that chaotic wildness, the old field that promised adventure – even the spittle-bugs that brushed our cheeks as we crawled through the grasses on all fours playing hide-and-seek.

If, as landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy contends in her 1995 classic The Inward Garden, the joyful, treasured places of our childhood become the environments we yearn for as adults, my Victoria field was the idyll I tried to recreate a half-century later in the wild front garden of our Toronto home, below, …..

Janet-Davis-Toronto front garden

….. and in the meadows of our cottage at Lake Muskoka….

Janet Davis-East Meadow- Lake Muskoka

….. where bees and butterflies and birds are welcomed.

Janet-Davis-West Meadow-Lake Muskoka

But meadow-making, for me, though it became somewhat more ‘designed’ and much more interesting than conventional gardening, never approached an art form. It was more about capturing a little corner of ‘wildness’ outside my door. Making a meadow that appears to be wild but is ‘enhanced nature’, that relies on deep knowledge for its plant palette and a wealth of experiment for its dynamic combinations: that is the work of a master. And that is how Piet Oudolf came to design the entry border at the Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG).

But first, let’s back up a little to 2006.


Toronto Botanical Garden

In the early 2000’s, when Toronto’s Civic Garden Centre was being transformed from a small, horticulture-related institution to the Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG), a series of 17 themed gardens were designed to skirt around the new LEED building and extend out into the modest 4-acre property. . (You can see my seasonal galleries of all these gardens on the TBG’s website). Landscape architects for some of the gardens included PMA Landscape Architects Ltd. and Sparling Landscape Architects. For the prominent entry walk along the entrance driveway and the long south wall of the building, funding was provided by the Garden Club of Toronto to commission Toronto landscape architect Martin Wade of MWLA, below left, and Piet Oudolf, right, to collaborate on the hardscape and plant design.   Construction-Piet Oudolf & Martin Wade-Toronto Botanical Garden

Garden club member Nancy Laurie (who provided these photographs of the planting) was intimately involved with the beginning of the garden. As she recalls: “The club was asked to design and install a perennial garden that welcomed visitors into a botanical garden. The parameters of the garden area were predetermined by the TBG and the space was limited in height and width variations. It was surrounded by two parking lots, sidewalks and a building.  It would most likely be viewed first by many from inside a moving car. In addition, the other gardens that would eventually make up the new Toronto Botanical Gardens would be of a more formal design. This garden had to stand out from the others. Be different. Announce this is as an avant botanical garden.  Martin Wade proposed including the internationally acclaimed perennial designer Piet Oudolf to join the project as a consultant specifically for the planting design and selection of plants using his much admired naturalistic interpretation of a traditional perennial border garden.”

Apart from having read some of Piet’s books on plant design and hearing him speak at conferences, Nancy had also helped organize several two-day symposiums on the theme of the natural garden. “So I was personally very keen to make this ‘new’ garden paradigm a key element in our new entrance garden,” she recalls. “The garden world of the 1990’s and early 2000’s was embracing a more modern approach to the traditional formal English-style perennial garden. Piet Oudolf’s alternative style is characterized by naturalistic plantings, both in techniques and style, and using plant material that suited the terrain, climate and growing conditions already present in the site. He was recognized at the time as the master of the ‘new perspective of planting’ to paraphrase the title of one of his books. He was ‘The Man’.”

The plant design was complete and ready for reference.

Construction-Toronto Botanical Garden Entry Border Plan

With the hardscaping and rough grading having been done earlier that spring, the garden was ready for planting. But first there were some preliminary steps. The garden was divided into precise grids….

Martin Wade-Entry Border-Toronto Botanical Garden.JPG

………which would facilitate transference of the design outlines onto the ground.

Constructon-Toronto Botanical Garden-Piet Oudolf Checking Grid.J

Once the grid was finished, the outline of the plant groupings themselves was sprayed onto the surface of the soil with a non-toxic paint…..

Construction-Toronto Botanical Garden-spraying grid

…..like a plant-by-number guide.

Construction-Planting Grid-Piet Oudolf-Toronto Botanical Garden

The Garden Club had teams of planting volunteers ready and they listened to words of wisdom from Piet before starting.  Says Nancy Laurie: “The committee gained enormous experience working through this project. At its completion, I prepared a process paper on how to organize and use volunteers to help install a large garden project under the leadership of a landscape architect. Martin Wade used the suggestions to direct the volunteers at his installation of several new gardens at the Royal Botanical Garden the following year.


Then it was out into the garden. Most of the plants were Heritage Perennials from the Ontario division of Valleybrook Gardens.

Construction-Entry Border-Piet Oudolf & Garden Club Members-Toronto Botanical Garden

As Nancy recalls: “Martin Wade managed the process of planting the garden with the help of Garden Club volunteers. Piet was on site for the first planting day to offer suggestions and help. He conferred with Martin and often stepped into the garden with the volunteers to show them how to properly plant a specific variety.”

Piet Oudolf Placing Plants-Toronto Botanical Garden

Nancy Laurie still recalls Piet’s planting lessons from that day.

  • When ready to plant, start at one end of the garden and move backwards so that the soil does not get compacted with foot traffic. Use planks of wood to walk on especially if the soil is wet so it does not compact.
  • Working in one grid area, dig all of the holes for one plant variety.
  • Loosen the soil around the planting hole several inches larger than the plant root system. Step back and look to see if the planting area is what it looks like on the plan. Adjust if needed before actually installing the plants.

Planted area-Oudolf entry garden-Toronto Botanical Garden

The entry walk was transformed that June into a fluttering, buzzing, verdant place of great beauty, different in all seasons, and indeed different from year to year, as the plants intermingled, possibly even more than their designer intended, and a few disappeared eventually, to be replaced by others. Let’s take a look at a small area, just in front of the glass screen dividing the border from the Floral Hall courtyard just to the north. Here it is on Piet’s plan.

Design-Piet Oudolf-Screen-Toronto Botanical Garden

Here’s the area as it looked in early spring 2006, with its new espaliered ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapples and coppery paperbark maples (Acer griseum).

Design-Piet Oudolf Screen1-April-Toronto Botanical Garden

Now look at it in May 2012, below. Seasonal spring bulbs are part of the changing display in the garden and, when carefully planted, they don’t affect the emergence of the perennials in Piet’s design.

Design-Piet Oudolf Screen2-May-Toronto Botanical Garden

Here it is in June 2011 with the Geranium psilostemon and Astrantia ‘Roma’ flowering amidst the lush green foliage of Deschampsia caespitosa.

Design-Piet Oudolf Screen4-June-Toronto Botanical Garden

I captured this autumn scene in October 2009, with the Deschampsia in flower and toad lilies (Tricyrtis formosa ‘Samurai’) blooming at left.

Design-Piet Oudolf Screen5-October-Toronto Botanical Garden

The genius of the entry garden, for me, especially in the early years when the perennials had not yet seeded about and intermingled, was that it transformed itself through the seasons — especially evident with the ornamental grasses.

Piet Oudolf entry border-seasonal views-Toronto Botanical Garden

Here’s my video of more of the seasonal changes in various parts of the garden.


Before I move on to more seasonal scenes from the garden, I’d like to acknowledge the hard work of head gardener Sandra Pella, her assistant gardeners and TBG horticulturist Paul Zammit, who oversee the demanding maintenance of the entry garden on a shoestring budget, and with great enthusiasm.

I was there to photograph it each spring….

Seasonal 1c-Spring-Piet Oudolf Entry Garden-Toronto Botanical Garden

……when the brilliance of the tulips, daffodils and small bulbs was especially welcome after the long winter we have in Toronto.

Seasonal 1a-Spring-Piet Oudolf Entry Garden-Toronto Botanical Garden

Families of donors to the garden help to plant new bulbs each autumn, changing the show annually.  The emerging perennials are unaffected by the bulbs growing in their midst.


Late spring featured the big, purple heads of alliums…..

Seasonal 2d-Late spring-Alliums & Hosta 'Blue Angel'-Piet Oudolf entry border-Toronto Botanical Garden

…… and lush peonies like ‘Krinkled White’, here with willow-leaf bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia)…..

Seasonal 2a-Late spring-Paeonia 'Krinkled White' & Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia-Piet Oudolf Border-Toronto Botanical Garden

….. and ‘Bowl of Beauty’, with mauve Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’, left and the white form of the mourning widow geranium (G. phaeum f. album) behind …..

Seasonal 2b-Late spring-Paeonia 'Bowl of Beauty'-Piet Oudolf Border-Toronto Botanical Garden.

…. and stunning red ‘Buckeye Belle’ with Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ in the background.

Seasonal 2c-Late spring-Paeonia 'Buckeye Belle' & Salvia-Piet Oudolf Border-Toronto Botanical Garden.

But the summer months are when the Oudolf garden hits its stride, as the lush, ornamental grasses begin to fountain around the stems of the flowering perennials.  In early summer, deep-red Knautia macedonica pops out like dots in a pointillist painting.

Seasonal 3a-early summer-Piet Oudolf entry border-Toronto Botanical Garden

I love knautia for its long flowering season and its attractiveness to all kinds of bees.

Knautia macedonica with bumble bee-bombus-Piet Oudolf border

Here are three Oudolf favourites:  from rear, mauve ‘Fascination’ Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), ‘Blue Fortune’ anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and the lime-green, needled leaves of Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii), half-way between its pale-blue spring flowers and brilliant gold fall colour.

Seasonal 3b-early summer Piet Oudolf entry border-Veronicastrum virginicum 'Fascination'-Agastache 'Blue Fortune'-TBG

A little later comes the beautiful echinacea show, here with the salmon daylily Hemerocallis ‘Pardon Me’ and ‘Veitch’s Blue’ globe thistle (Echinops ritro), which is…..

Seasonal 4a-midsummer-Piet-Oudolf-des

….. another exceptional bee plant.

Bees on Echinops ritro 'Veitch's Blue'

August is my favourite time in the garden, as the grasses reach their stately heights and the late-season perennials flower.  Here’s a little vignette of what you see as you do the entry walk in early-mid August:  violet spikes of blazing star (Liatris spicata); creamy-white rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); the lush, burgundy flowers of the various Joe Pye weeds (Eutrochium sp.); the small, dark-red wands of burnet(Sanguisorba sp.); and echinaceas.

Seasonal 4b-late summer-Piet Oudolf-designed entry border-Toronto Botanical Garden-Summer

Below we have the self-seeding annual Verbena bonariensis, left, leadplant (Amorpha canescens) past its flowering, centre, and red-spiked ‘Firetail’ persicaria (P. amplexicaulis) at right.

Seasonal 4c-Piet-Oudolf-des

By October, the Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) on the stone wall of the Raymond Moriyama-designed Flower Hall has turned bright red and the seedheads and fall colour of the big grasses in the Oudolf border take centre stage, along with a few asters and goldenrods that have sneaked into the border from other parts of the botanical garden.

Seasonal 5a-Autumn-Symphyot

One year, aromatic aster Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’, below, native to the central and eastern United States, looked stunning punctuated with echinacea seedheads.  But this lovely aster, used by Piet at Lurie Garden in Chicago, seems to have diminished in subsequent years, part of the inevitable reality of plant experimentation, something to which Piet Oudolf has paid great attention over the decades.

Seasonal 5b-Autumn-Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'October Skies'

Perennial seedheads are an important part of the seasonal show in the garden; these are the mocha-brown October seedheads of the yarrow Achillea millefolium ‘Walther Funcke’, with silvery Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Little Spire’ at right and bronze Astilbe ‘Purpurlanze’ in the background.

Seasonal 5c-Autumn-Ct

And provided that repeated heavy, wet snowfalls do not knock down the plants and ruin the show, the entry garden demonstrates the beauty of the persistent seedheads and stems throughout winter.  The grass at left is Korean feather grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha).

Seasonal 6-Piet Oudolf-designed entry border-Toronto Botanical Garden-Winter


Plants and Memories

Many of the plants in the entry garden are part of Piet Oudolf’s personal history: breeding successes of the German or Dutch plantsmen who were part of his circle – and horticultural education – since the beginning of his design career and life in Hummelo.  People like Ernst Pagels (1913-2007), of Leer, himself a student of Karl Foerster, the iconic nurseryman who sheltered Jews in his nursery during the Second World War and whose name is memorialized in a well-known feather reed grass (Calamagrosis x acutiflora). As explained in Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life, in the 1980s Piet Oudolf travelled often across the border into Germany to visit Pagels at his nursery where they would talk plants. “We went to get the newest plants, and to bring them home…. and we exchanged a lot.”   Among the Ernst Pagels jewels that live in the TBG’s entry garden are Achillea ‘Walther Funcke’….

Pagels-Achillea 'Walther Funcke'-Piet Oudolf border-Toronto Botanical Garden

…. Astilbe chinensis var. tacquetii ‘Purpurlanze’ and Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ …..

Pagels-Astilbe chinensis var. tacquetii 'Purpurlanze' & Stachys officinalis 'Hummelo'

…. Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’……

Pagels-Phlomis tuberosa 'Amazone'-Piet Oudolf Border-Toronto Botanical Garden

…. and Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’, shown here with Allium cristophii.

Pagels-Salvia 'Amethyst'-Piet Oudolf Border-Toronto Botanical Garden

Piet’s Dutch friend and fellow plantsman Coen Jansen is responsible for the tall meadowrue Thalictrum ‘Elin’.

Coen Jansen-Thalictrum 'Elin'

And his German colleague Cassian Schmidt, director of the famous garden at Hermannshof, (thanks Tony Spencer for that great blog entry) has his own name memorialized in the beautiful, Kurt Bluemel-raised fountain grass Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Cassian’, shown here with the statice Limonium latifolium…..

Cassian Schmidt-Pennisetum alopecuroides 'Cassian' & Limonium latifolium-Toronto Botanical Garden

As for Piet Oudolf himself, long before he designed the planting of the TBG’s entry border, he was selecting his own plants and registering them. In 1998, the year before I visited him at Hummelo, he joined with two other growers to launch their company Future Plants, “to market their introductions and to protect their work through Plant Breeder’s Rights.”  As explained in Hummelo: A Journey…, these plants were often put into production in the U.S. before Dutch nurseries had started to raise them.  Among the Piet Oudolf-propagated plants in the entry garden are the pale-mauve hybrid monkshood Aconitum ‘Stainless Steel’….

Piet Oudolf introduction-Aconitum 'Stainless Steel'

……. Astrantia major ‘Roma’…..

Piet Oudolf introduction-Astrantia-major 'Roma'

….. Echinacea purpurea ‘Vintage Wine’, with its lovely dark stems….

Piet Oudolf introduction-Echnacea purpurea 'Vintage Wine'-Toronto Botanical Garden

….. Monarda ‘Scorpion’…..

Piet Oudolf Introduction-Monarda 'Scorpion'-1

….. Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Little Spire’, a compact Russian sage shown below with Calamintha nepeta (a fabulous bee combo!)…..

Piet Oudolf introduction-Perovskia 'Little Spire' with Calamintha nepeta

….. Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firedance’…..

Piet Oudolf- Introduction-Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Firedance'

….. Salvia ‘Madeline’…..

Piet Oudolf Introduction-Salvia 'Madeline'

….. Salvia verticillata ‘Purple Rain’ (this photo with Achillea ‘Anthea’ was made at the Royal Botanical Garden in Burlington, near Toronto) …..

Piet Oudolf introduction-Salvia verticillata 'Purple Rain'

….. Veronica ‘Eveline’, here with Deschampsia caespitosa…….

Piet Oudolf Introduction-Veronica 'Eveline'

….  …. and finally the spectacular Culver’s root Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’, given its tongue-in-cheek name by Piet Oudolf because of its genetic tendency to ‘fasciation’, a flattening of the flower spike.

Piet Oudolf introduction-Veronicastrum virginicum 'Fascination'

That concludes the first part of my two-part blog on the entry garden at the Toronto Botanical Garden. In Part Two (coming soon), I’ll drill down into Piet Oudolf’s garden plan to show you some terrific plant combinations, and some of my favourite plants and why.

PS – if you’re a fan of New York’s High Line, I have photographed the Oudolf plantings there in three seasons, and blogged about a few of those visits as well. Here’s the High Line in early May and a two-part blog on the High Line in mid-June.

This summer, I’m looking forward to visiting Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

The American West: Cody, Cowboys & Rushmore

At long last, I’m finishing up my journal of our spectacular (and I don’t use that word lightly) September trip to the American West. As you might recall, in my first blog we visited Grand Teton National Park, then I wrote about our magical journey through Yellowstone National Park with its otherworldly geysers and fumaroles.

As we exit Yellowstone’s East Gate through Sylvan Pass in the Absaroka mountain range, we soon find ourselves following the Shoshone River through the Shoshone National Forest, both named for the indigenous Shoshone people who inhabited the region.  At the river’s edge are willows and September-blooming rigid goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigida). This area between Yellowstone and Cody (our destination for the day and overnight) is called the Wapiti Valley, wapiti being the Shawnee word for elk.

Shoshone National Forest

Our first stop out of Yellowstone (which has no private commercial businesses) is Pahaska Tepee, a mountain resort built in 1904 by Buffalo Bill Cody as a hunting lodge. The resort has the obligatory gift shop…

Pahaska Tepee Gift Shop

….. horses ready to be saddled for trail-riding through the forest……

Pahaska Tepee-Trail Horses

…. and, most interesting to us, a little museum…..

Buffalo Bill Hunting Lodge-Pahaska

…displaying artifacts of Buffalo Bill’s time there….

Buffalo Bill Hunting Lodge

…. including something that’s still important for forest-firefighters in the Yellowstone ecosystem, the vintage version of a modern Fedco smokechaser, a backpack water pump.

Fedco Smokechaser-Buffalo Bill Hunting Lodge

Driving along the Shoshone River, I’m reminded of an historic story of mistaken identity.  When John Colter (mentioned in blog on the Tetons) became the first white man to reach Yellowstone in 1807-08, he described a sulphurous-smelling river with frightening geothermal features, a place that skeptics nicknamed Colter’s Hell. The assumption was that this river was in geothermal-rich Yellowstone, but it was later deduced that the river Colter described was, in fact, the Shoshone as it traverses deep canyons near Cody, Wyoming. For the record, this part of the Shoshone just smelled to me like a lovely autumn day!

Shoshone River-Stinkhole River

The rock formations – pinnacles or hoodoos – in the Wapiti Valley are spectacular and renowned, the product of erosion of lower rock layers contrasted with the relative stability of towers remaining when hard cap rocks protect softer sediment below.  This one looks for all the world like a Shoshone chief.

Rock Formations-Shoshone Valley

The brownish rock of the cliff across the highway is volcanic breccia.

Volcanic breccia formation-Shoshone Forest

Six miles west of Cody, Wyoming, we pass by the Buffalo Bill Reservoir. You can see how the landscape here has changed from rugged mountain valley to rolling hills and sagebrush. Cody actually sits at the edge of the Bighorn basin in the centre of four mountain ranges: the Absarokas, Big Horn, Owl Creek and Bridger Mountains.

Buffalo Bill Reservoir

Soon we pull up to the main attraction in Cody: the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.  The name is a little deceiving, because this is five museums in one: Buffalo Bill Museum, Plains Indians Museum, Whitney Western Art Museum, Draper Natural History Museum, and the Cody Firearms Museum.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Pretty much everything in the town of Cody – and certainly in the Buffalo Bill Museum in the eponymous Center of the West – focuses on the legacy and legend of William Frederick Cody (1846-1917), aka Buffalo Bill Cody. (As a Torontonian I was interested to learn while researching this that when Iowa-born Cody was a youngster, he lived for 7 years in what is now Mississauga, Ontario, the birthplace of his father, Isaac, and was christened in the small chapel that the Cody family built in 1839. The Dixie Union Chapel still stands at the corner of Cawthra and Dundas.)   After moving his family to the Kansas territory in 1853, Isaac Cody was stabbed by a pro-slavery sympathizer at a political meeting. He died three years later and William, aged 11, began working to support his sisters and mother. He drove horses and wagons (but the vaunted Pony Express stories seem to have been exaggerated by him to enhance his showman’s reputation later). When the Civil War broke out in 1861 young William was attracted to the Kansas Redlegs, an anti-slavery militia, joining it in 1862 to avenge his father’s death. He later joined the regular Union Army and served until the war’s end in 1865, fighting in 16 battles. Married and back home in Kansas, he joined a company providing meals to the workers building the Kansas Pacific Railroad. With his natural riding ability and his army-acquired skill as a crack shot, Cody’s job was to provide the meat, i.e. buffalo steak.  He went back to work for the Army in 1868, acting as a civilian scout in the Indian Wars.  His skill at hunting bison for the railroad and also the army became legendary, earning him his nickname “Buffalo Bill”. It’s estimated he killed 4282 bison in the years 1867-68. He burnished his reputation through his friendship with another “Bill” folk hero of the old West, Wild Bill Hickok.

Bill Cody Hunting Buffalo-Charles H. Stevens-1911

By the early 70s when he was in his late 20s, Cody had already begun making appearances in newspapers and adventure novels, and he, Hickok and two friends started producing and starring in their own stage plays, the Wild West Shows.  But he was still riding as a scout for the Fifth Cavalry in the Great Sioux War, and in July 1876 in northwestern Nebraska, he shot a young Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hair and brandished his headdress and part of his scalp as a grisly atonement for Custer’s defeat and death at Little Bighorn just weeks earlier. It is memorialized in this 1928 painting ‘First Scalp for Custer’ by Cody’s friend Robert Lindneux.

First Scalp For Custer-Robert Lindneux

In 1883, he mounted the first circus-like production, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, in La Platte, Nebraska.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West

Ironically, in June, 1885, he even signed up Sitting Bull for an initial bonus of $125 and a wage of $50 per week. Despite Cody’s post-Indian Wars attempt to integrate his attraction using the very chief whose leadership helped make it possible to defeat General Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull himself was killed 5 years later during his arrest by Indian Agency police.

Sitting Bull

Another feature of the museum is the Deadwood stagecoach, which had a stormy history in its career of 11 years, being repeatedly attacked for the gold and currency it carried.

US Mail Deadwood Coach-Buffalo Bill Center of the West

One of the coaches was incorporated into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West tour, and when the show visited England for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1887. “The highlight of the show came when several monarchs, including the Prince of Wales and the kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium, and Saxony, hopped aboard the Deadwood Stage with Buffalo Bill in the driver’s seat and rode around the arena while the assembled Indians engaged in a mock attack.” (Buffalo Bill in Bologna, 1869-1922, Robert W. Rydell and Rob Kroes)

Queen Victoria & Buffalo Bill's Wild West-1887 Jubilee

In 1893, he changed the name to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, featuring a parade, cowboys, Indians, Turks, gauchos, African-Americans and others. He also launched the career of sharpshooter Annie Oakley (below) and her husband Frank Butler.

Annie Oakley

Despite his early skill at buffalo-hunting, according to displays at the museum, “Cody became an outspoken critic of the wanton slaughter of buffalos that began in the 1860s and led to their near extermination within two decades.”   This is a taxidermy tableau in the Buffalo Bill museum.

Taxidermy Bison Exhibit

Moving out of the Buffalo Bill Museum, I visit the wonderful Plains Indian Museum.

The Plains Indian Museum-Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Of the myriad exhibits, I love the clothing. On the left is a deer hide-beadwork Cheyenne baby cradle. On the right is a girl’s dress adorned with elk teeth.

Cheyenne Cradle-Crow Girl's Dress-Buffalo Bill Center of the West

This tells the story of the relative ease with which the Cheyenne could migrate, once they had horses.

Migration-Cheyenne-Plains Indian Museum

This hide painting by the Arapaho artist Eagle Robe, Eugene Ridgeley Sr., depicts the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women and children, were killed by the 3rd Colorado Cavalry.

Sand Creek Massacre-Eagle Robe-Buffalo Bill Center of the West

The Draper Natural History Museum features exhibits on geology and biology, including Wyoming’s native animals.

Draper Natural History Museum-animal display

You can watch scientists working on specimens in the Draper Museum Living Laboratory Exhibit.

Draper Museum Living Laboratory Exhibit

Isn’t this spectacular? A map made from 27,000 mosaic tiles!


And this stunning painting by James Everett Stuart of the Yellowstone Falls and Canyon, part of the Center’s collection,  takes me back to our recent visit to this spectacular feature.

James Everett Stuart-Great Falls and Canyon of the Yellowstone

Our final stop at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue, starring Dan, his daughter Hannah Miller, and Wendy Corr. Here’s a little flavour of their music:

The next morning, after an overnight in Cody, we head out onto the highway. Bus travel at 60 miles an hour makes photography difficult, but the four small scenes below give you an idea of what we pass by. The crop at top right is sugar beets. The formation at lower left is a mesa, a rise weathered away by millions of years of erosion.  At bottom right is a farm field after harvesting. In Wyoming, 80% of water use is farming and agriculture.


Somewhat bizarrely, there’s a Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting in the middle of the high plains – and it’s our rest stop.


Wyoming is known for its bentonite clay deposits. This is the stucco facility of Wyo-Ben Inc. at Greybull. You can see the red bentonite on the slope beyond.

Wyo-Ben Bentonite-Greybull

Below is a field of dented corn, used mostly for animal feed (it’s also good for grits). At far right, you can see the bright green of an alfalfa field.

Dented corn field-Greybull Wyoming

Here are some more snapshots of agricultural scenes (I love the beehives, top left)   and geological features in the distance, the beginning of the Bighorns  Bottom left is sandstone; bottom right is limestone (I think).


Highway 14 takes us east over the Bighorn Mountains, the last of the Rocky Mountain ranges. We’ll be at 9,000 feet elevation at the top.

Highway 14-Shell Canyon-Big Horn Mountains

The scenery is spectacular; we stop and look across the range. The small tree/shrub at the left is Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma). We’re at about 6000 feet here. I believe the pinkish rock on the top of the slope in the distance is Madison group limestone. (But I could be wrong). Geologists refer to that sloping inclination as a monocline.

Bighorn Mountains view

Here’s a closer look at the top. All those blackish dots below are Utah juniper.

Madison group limestones-monocline

Look how the rock is weathered away at the very top.


At our lookout, I spot a painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) nectaring on rabbitbush (Chrysothamnus).

Painted lady-rabbitbush-Bighorn Mountains

As we descend to the eastern side, we pass big grazing ranges.  The Bighorns have skiing, snowmobiling, sheep and cattle grazing, and forestry – apart from their natural beauty. .

Grazing land-Bighorn Mountains

Looking east as we descend, we see the Tongue River Valley; hidden is the Tongue River, which has its source in the Bighorns and flows north to Montana. There is a long history of litigation between the two states, with Montana claiming that Wyoming farmers take too much of the Tongue’s water.  The trees on the slope are Ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa).

Tongue River Valley-Wyoming

We pass the Tongue River Elementary School in Dayton, Wyoming….


…and it sparks a memory of a song by one of my favourite singers, Nanci Griffith (written by her former husband Eric Taylor). It captures a little of the 19th century lore of this area (a little east into South Dakota), the story of Crazy Horse (whose memorial we’ll see tomorrow) and “young Mickey Free, who lost an eye to a buck deer in the Tongue River Valley”.  (And no, that’s not a photo of Crazy Horse, whose likeness has never been seen in a photograph).  Listen to the words.

Our first look at open coal cars comes near Dayton. Forty percent of America’s coal is mined in this area.


And then we arrive at the highlight of our time in Wyoming’s Cowboy country: the TA Ranch.

TA Ranch-Buffalo Wyoming

The ranch has a storied history in Wyoming cattle country lore, for it was the site of the bloody grand finale of the Johnson County cattle wars, between the corporate cattlemen and homesteading ranchers.  (See my video below for more on that episode).

Johnson County-Cattle War

After lunch, we have a number of choices of activities, from taking a wagon ride…..


….. to taking a trail ride.  I haven’t been on a horse since I was 10 or so, and the thought frightens me a little, but they look docile and the land is flat (and my husband is willing, and anything he can do….). Thanks to Robert Kelley for the photo.

Janet-Commander-TA Ranch

I make a video from the back of my horse Commander, so I can remember the landscape and the experience better. Here it is!

We also have time to watch TA Ranch’s ‘horse whisperer’ Marchel Kelley work on training a frisky horse. Here’s my video of that experience.

We finish our day at the lovely Ranch at Ucross …..

Ranch at Ucross

….where we have dinner, then sit around the campfire, listening to Katie Wilhelm sing cowboy songs for us before bedtime.  Here’s a Wyoming classic:

As I walked out one morning for pleasure,
I spied a cow-puncher all riding alone;
His hat was throwed back and his spurs was a jingling,
As he approached he was singin’ this song,

Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies,
It’s your misfortune, and none of my own.
Whoopee ti yi yo, git along little dogies,
For you know Wyoming will be your new home.

And a little video of Katie singing:

The next morning we awake to the last full day of our tour. It seems incredible that we have covered so much spectacularly beautiful natural territory in just 5 days, but we’re now leaving Wyoming and heading to the Black Hills of South Dakota to view the work of two men who decide to apply their talents to shaping nature (literally) in order to honour others. But first, a little scenery as we go: cattle near Ranchester, Wyoming….

Cattle near Ranchester

… a coal mine near Caspar….

Coal mine-Wyoming

….and one of many oil rigs in the area.

Oil rig-Wyoming

It takes us less than four hours to reach our first destination, the Crazy Horse Memorial.  Details and background can be found on the website, but in essence, the sculpture is the work of the late sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (1908-1982) and now his ten adult children, who continue to carve the 600-foot (183 metre) high granite mountain on land that belonged to the Lakota Sioux, fulfilling the pact between the Ziolkowski and the late Oglala Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear (1874-1953), who wrote to him in the late 1930s saying: “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too”.  This was in response to the carving nearby of Mount Rushmore (1927-1941), memorializing Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. Korczak Ziolkowski had been working – but not happily – as assistant to the head sculptor Gutzon Borglum; their relationship ended with a fistfight. The Crazy Horse Memorial honours the iconic Lakota warrior who led 1500 warriors to defeat General Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, and was killed the following year after surrendering. Little Big Horn was the worst defeat for the army in the Plains Indian War, and the greatest victory for the Indians. As Chief Standing Bear said of the carving:  Crazy Horse was to be seated on his horse with his outstretched hand over the horse’s head indicating, My lands are where my dead lie buried,” in response to a cavalry man asking him where his lands are now.

Crazy Horse-Memorial

After serving with the Army during the WWII, Ziolkowski began carving in 1948, using a scale model he’d made of Crazy Horse – something that can only be called an artistic rendition, since the warrior never permitted his photo to be taken.  This is a plaster rendering of the ultimate design.

Crazy Horse-Model

The final face details were finished in the spring of 1998.

Crazy Horse Memorial face

Almost 70 years after its beginning, trucks, cranes and earth movers replace the rudimentary equipment Ziolkowski used in the first few decades.

Crazy Horse-heavy machinery

On a personal note, about a decade ago I worked intensely with the music of the late California singer-songwriter John Stewart (composer of ‘Daydream Believer’ and 400+ more songs), the goal being to create a theatrical adaptation. During that period, I happened upon John’s tribute to Korczak Ziolkowski, a song I incorporated into my YouTube video on the Crazy Horse Memorial. John’s lyrics attempt to answer the question many have in gazing on this monolithic piece of art:  why would someone devote his life to such a goal?  Have a listen.

Our final destination needs little commentary, for the carved faces at Mount Rushmore form a renowned national monument, one that’s made its way into countless films and books. But if you were sneaking up on it from behind, you’d never know what awaits on the other side.

Mount Rushmore-rear

Move a little further and you see the first president of the United States, George Washington, peeking out over the Ponderosa pines.

Mount Rushmore-George Washington-rear

We arrive at the front of Mount Rushmore and park; then begin the walk to the base of the mountain.

Mount Rushmore-entrance

There are boardwalks that traverse the base of Mount Rushmore, and as I look up, I see a family of mountain goats peering down at the tourists. It’s a little ironic that we find the wildlife here, near the snack bar, when we didn’t see mountain goats in Yellowstone…..


Given the angles and the height, it’s tricky to see all the presidents from the lower flank of the mountain. But I adore the fact that I can see the aspens and pines below their faces. The carving of the president’s faces was completed between 1934 and 1939.  When Gutzon Boglum died in 1941, his son Lincoln took over working on the presidential torsos, but federal funding ended that autumn, and the carving ended with it, well above the presidential waists.


Look at Lincoln peering through Ponderosa pine. It’s perfect!

Abraham Lincoln-Mount Rushmore-Ponderosa pines

And George Washington gazing down past trembling aspens.

Mount Rushmore-George-Washington-quaking aspen-Populus tremuloides

Focusing on Washington’s ‘eye’ with my telephoto lens, I’m fascinated that Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln were able to create this reflection in the ‘iris’.


President Roosevelt is always in shade, so this is the best I can do with the Rushmore presidents…..


Soon it’s time to head back to the bus and make our way to our hotel In Rapid City, South Dakota. I’m delighted that our room at The Rushmore Hotel seems to evoke a little of our environment over the past six days. I know it’s only wallpaper, but it feels good to be falling asleep in front of aspens.

The Rushmore Hotel-Rapid City

I can’t say enough about Tauck Tours and our host Murray Rose.  Writing this blog, I’ve just returned from a week in Aruba. It was a fine getaway from winter; the sea was turquoise, the sky periwinkle-blue, the people lovely….. but I didn’t gain much knowledge of our planet, even as I relaxed with my books. This trip to the Tetons, Yellowstone and Rushmore filled my head with knowledge. And isn’t that why we travel?

Au Revoir, René Giguère!

This is a little farewell blog to one of the loveliest men in Canadian horticulture:  René Giguère, curator of the Alpinum at Montreal Botanical Garden.  René is retiring in early March after a career of 40 years spent nurturing alpine plants from all over the globe.  It’s a good time to take a rest – and he’ll be able to devote more time to the other love of his life, his beautiful wife Diane.

René Giguère-Alpinum-Montreal Botanical Garden

I’ve been visiting the Jardin Botanique de Montréal for 20 years. It’s one of my top 3 public botanical gardens in North America, both for its deep collections and its creative display gardens, and I’ve written blogs about their fabulous Shade Garden and their spectacular collection of yellow magnolias.  I ventured into l’Alpinum or Rock Garden one August day in 2013 and soon found myself searching for a gardener to ask – in my fractured high school French – the name of a plant being buzzed by honey bees (a photography project I was working on at the time).  René smiled and replied in excellent English (whew!) that he would have a look at the hidden tag. It was Staehelina uniflosculosa, a plant from the mountains of Greece and Albania.

Staehelina uniflosculosa

René and I began to chat, and realized we had friends in common, including Ontario seed maven Kristl Walek and Quebec garden writer Larry Hodgson, who had introduced him to Diane.   From then on, when I visited, I would search him out – and was always disappointed when he wasn’t there. As for the garden itself, though it was begun in 1937, World War One intervened and it was not fully finished until 1962.  Forty years later, the first of two crevice gardens was installed, the design work of Czech botanist Josef Halda.

Alpine Garden-Montreal Botanical-July

A second vertical crevice garden was installed in 2005 by Czech botanist Zdeněk Zvolánek.

Crevice garden-Alpinum-Alpine-Zdeněk Zvolánek-Montreal Botanical

You can read about the vertical crevice garden in René’s story for the North American Rock Garden Society’s Spring 2006 Quarterly (pages 94-114).

Crevice Garden-Sign-Alpinum-Alpine-Montreal Botanical

The Alpine Garden is roughly 10 acres and contains 4,900 taxa.  It features plants from the Appalachians and the Rockies….

North America section-Alpinum-Montreal Botanical-Alpine

(including a very live fox!)…

Fox-Alpinum-Alpine-Montreal Botanical Garden

….the Pyrenees…

Pyrenees section-Alpinum-Montreal Botanical

….as well as the Balkans, the Carpathians, the Caucasus and various parts of Asia.

Waterfall-Alpinum-rock garden-Montreal Botanical

I thought it would be nice if some of René’s “children” could help say farewell to him on the occasion of his retirement. Here they are, some from May, July and August, arranged by botanical name. And I hope to have the opportunity to photograph many more of his children as the years pass.  Felicitations, René!  Thanks for making the Alpinum so special, and do enjoy the next chapter in your life.

Spring alpines-Alpinum-Crevice Garden-Zdeněk Zvolánek-Montreal Botanical

 Krylova’s monkshood (Aconitum krylovii) from Russia’s Altai Mountains, below.

Aconitum krylovii-Krylova's Monkshood

Three-leaved ladybells (Adenophora triphylla) from mountain meadows  in Siberia, Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam and Laos.

Adenophora triphylla-Three leaved ladybells

Licorice mint hyssop (Agastache rupestris) from the mountains of Arizona, New Mexico and Chihuaha state, Mexico. (Incidentally, this is one of the best hummingbird plants!)

Agastache rupestris-licorice mint hyssop

Mountain deathcamas  (Anticlea elegans, formerly Zigadenus) from alpine meadows in the Rocky Mountains.

Anticlea elegans-Death camas-Alpinum-Alpine-Montreal Botanical

Hardy Spanish snapdragon (Antirrhinum braun-blanquetii) from the mountains of Spain and Portugal.

Antirrhinum braun-blanqueti-Spanish snapdragon

Fan columbine (Aquilegia flabellata) from the mountains of northern Japan, Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

Aquilegia flabellata-Fan columbine

Juniper-leaved thrift (Armeria juniperifolia) from the mountainous regions of central Spain.

Armeria juniperifolia-juniper leaved thrift

Orange-stalked bulbine (Bulbine frutescens) native to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Bulbine frutescens-Orange stalked bulbine

Lovely combination of (circumboreal) Olympic harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) and spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata), both native to North America.

Campanula rotundifolia & Monarda punctata-Alpinum-Montreal Botanical

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) native to the Piedmont Mountains of the U.S.

Clematis virginiana-Virgins Bower-Alpinum-Alpine-Montreal Botanical

Dianthus nardiformis an endangered pink native to the mountains of Bulgaria and Romania.

Dianthus nardiformis-Alpinum-Alpine-Montreal Botanical

Nodding dragons-head (Dracocephalum nutans) from alpine slopes in Pakistan and Kashmir.

Dracocephalum nutans-nodding dragon's head

Tennessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis), a federally endangered species from rocky cedar glades in the mountains of Tennessee.

Echinacea tennesseensis-Alpinum-Alpine-Montreal Botanical Garden

Manescau’s erodium (Erodium manescavii) from the Pyrenees.

Erodium manescavii-Manescau's hereons bill

Azure-blue stemless or trumpet gentian (Gentiana acaulis) from the European Alps.

Gentiana acaulis-Stemless gentian

Gentiana septemfida ssp. grossheimii from the Caucasus Mountains.

Gentiana septemfida ssp. grossheimii

Globe daisy (Globularia nudicaulis) from the mountains of Northern Spain, the Alps and the Pyrenees.

Globularia nudicaulis-Alpinum-Zdeněk Zvolánek-Montreal Botanical

Gorgeous standing cypress (Ipomopsis rubra) from the Rocky Mountains through to Texas and Ontario. (Another good hummingbird plant!)

Ipomopsis rubra-Standing cypress-Alpinum-Montreal Botanical

Crimean iris (Iris lutescens) from rocky hillsides of Italy, southern France and northeast Spain.

Iris lutescens-Crimean iris

Lovely crested iris (Iris cristata) from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Ohio Valley.

Iris criistata-Crested iris

A pretty combination of common grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) from the Caucasus Mountains, Turkey and Greece and European pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) from calcareous slopes in Europe.

Muscari armeniacum & Pulsatilla vulgaris-Alpinum-Montreal Botanical

Coastal hogfennel (Peucedanum japonicum) from Japan and Korea.

Peucedanum japonicum-coastal hogfennel

Rock willow (Salix vestita) from the subalpine zones of mountains in eastern British Columbia, Alberta, north to Nunavut and central Siberia.

Salix vestita-rock willow-Alpinum-Alpine-Montreal Botanical

Japanese burnet (Sanguisorba obtusa) from the serpentine mountains of North Honshû, Japan.

Sanguisorba obtusa-Japanese burnet

Chinese or Baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) from mountains of China, Russia, Mongolia, China and Korea.

Scutellaria baicalensis-Chinese scullcap

Moon carrot (Seseli gummiferum) from limestone cliffs in Eastern Europe, the Aegean and Crimea.

Seseli gummiferum-moon carrot-Alpinum-Montreal Botanical

Lakeside or Four-nerved daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea) from limestone alvars of the Great Lakes basin of North America.

Tetraneuris herbacea-Lakeside daisy

Blue throatwort (Trachelium caeruleum) from rocky banks near the Mediterranean.

Trachelium caeruleum-Blue throatwort

Horned garden tulip (Tulipa gesneriana ‘Cornuta’, often referred to as T. acuminata, invalid sp.) from Turkey.

Tulipa gesneriana 'Cornuta'-horned tulip

Gentian speedwell (Veronica gentianoides) from the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe.

Veronica gentianoides-Gentian speedwell

Rocky Mountains zinnia, Plains zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora) from dry calcareous slopes and plains from Colorado to Arizona, Texas and Mexico.

Zinnia grandiflora-Rocky Mountains zinnia

Winter Bark & Bough: A Valentine to Trees

In my part of the world, winter often seems like a time that nature has forgotten. Frozen earth, dirty snow, leafless tree boughs except for the evergreens – a subdued landscape of grey, brown and white. Yet there is life teeming deep in the soil under that snow and spring beckons just months away.  And there is majesty in the skeletal architecture of trees. While returning to Toronto from our cottage on Lake Muskoka one late afternoon recently (and, I hasten to add, I was in the passenger seat), I clicked my camera at tree vignettes flanking Highway 400, the major north-south route linking the city to cottage country and beyond. Forest, farm field, windbreak, granite outcrop… all stood out in moody relief against the January sky.  Photographing at 70 miles an hour doesn’t give sharp results, but as a low-resolution mosaic, it’s a beautiful way to appreciate the winter landscape and the skeletons of trees.

Winter Tree skeletons-Highway 400-Ontario

With winter hanging on for five months or more in Toronto, the architecture of trees becomes an important consideration in garden design. Since I’m a bit of a tree geek, I pay attention to those things, and thought some of my blog readers might share my enjoyment. So here is a roster of hardy shrubs and trees with distinctive winter bark and branching, arranged by botanical name. It’s…um….quite comprehensive — let’s just call it an “encyclotreedia”. Or, given the date, perhaps we can call it a Valentine to Trees. And please note, this is not a recommendation list, merely a photo guide to many dediduous species, native and non-native, well-behaved or potentially invasive. Almost all were photographed in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery, the 200-acre arboretum I am so very fortunate to have less than a mile-and-a-half from my home, a place in which I’ve been photographing flora for 20 years.

Acer davidii – Pere David’s Maple: This maple represents one of the hardiest of the beautiful snakebark maples. Its bark is olive-green with silvery vertical stripes intercut with small horizontal, green lenticels. In time, the bark changes to striped light-brown. A beautiful, small, multi-stemmed tree that grows to 30-40 feet (9-12 metres) or so and colours nicely in autumn. Sadly, the one I know has developed sun scald on its exposed flank, but seems to hang on despite the gaping splits in the trunk.

Acer davidii-Pere David's maple-winter trunk

Acer griseum – Paperbark Maple:  I grow this lovely, small, Asian maple in my own garden, regrettably out of my sight line in a side-yard where I cannot appreciate the gorgeous exfoliating bark on its slender red trunk, especially in winter against the snow.  Paperbark maple matures somewhere between 20-30 feet (6-9 metres) with a lovely, vase-shaped form.  Trifoliate leaves turn scarlet in fall.

Acer griseum-Paperbark maple-winter-bark

Acer pseudoplatanus – Sycamore Maple: The Latin name of this large (75-90 feet, 23-27 metre), short-trunked Eurasian maple means “false plane tree”, and its leaves and exfoliating grey-brown bark do bear some resemblance to the American sycamore and Oriental plane tree of the genus Platanus. But like all maples, sycamore maple has opposite branching, unlike alternate-branched plane trees, and its fruit is a samara rather than the spherical “buttonball” fruit of plane trees.  The confusion is heightened by the common name “sycamore”, applied to both the maple and American plane tree or sycamore which derives from the Greek word “sykomoros”, meaning fig-mulberry. But it is thought to refer to a large Middle Eastern fig called Ficus sycamorus, an ancient tree mentioned in the bible; thus the word later became generic for “shade tree”.

Acer pseudoplatanus-Sycamore maple-winter bark

Acer rubrum – Red Maple:  This native tree starts out with smooth, light-grey bark, as with the wonderful fall-colouring Acer rubrum ‘Morgan’, below…..

Acer rubrum 'Morgan'-red maple-young bark

….. before developing its rough, scaly, dark bark later in life, when it can be as tall as 90 feet (27 metres) in wide-open areas, but likely already nearing the end of a life that averages 80 to 100 years.

Acer rubrum-red maple-bark-winter

Acer saccharinum – Silver Maple: We once had a tall, majestic silver maple on the boulevard in front of our house in Toronto, and I counted the rings when the city came to cut it down in 1996.  There were 81, which meant it had been planted when our house was built, around 1915. Its bark and bearing at that age looked like the silver maple below: long, narrow strips of medium grey, many fallen off, and the main trunk dividing into sub-trunks before flaring into elegant limbs on high.  I still miss it.

Acer saccharinum-silver maple-winter-bark

The upper bark of the silver maple is produced in sheet-like plates, something like the bark that the hairy woodpecker is attacking in my video made in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, below.

Acer saccharum – Sugar Maple:  Who hasn’t stood under a sugar maple in autumn and gazed in awe at the sunset array of fall colours, below?  It’s in winter when we notice the dark, furrowed, sometimes curling bark of the trunk leading up to the widespread crown, the massive canopy often missing brittle limbs in old age.  And, of course, just below that furrowed bark is the xylem tissue that scarcely waits until winter’s last gasp before drawing up sweet sap from the thawing soil – sap that turns into delicious maple syrup in the right hands.

Acer saccharum-sugar maple-winter-bark

Sugar maple is the quintessential fall-colouring tree in eastern North America.

Acer saccharum-Sugar maple-fall colour

Aesculus flava – Yellow Buckeye:  When young, yellow buckeye’s bark looks smooth and grey, like beech bark.  As the tree ages to its mature 50-70 feet (15-21 metre) height, its bark develops scales and loose plates.  The tree below developed sub-trunks a short distance from the base.

Aesculus flava-yellow buckeye-winter-bark-trunk

Aesculus hippocastanum – Horsechestnut:  There isn’t much remarkable in the scaly, ridged bark of a mature horsechestnut trunk. What is spectacular is the oval crown and the branches that hang down from 100 feet (30 metres) or so, as if anticipating the weight of those big, beautiful, white flower panicles in June……

Aesculus hippocatanum-horse chestnut-winter

….. and, of course, the plump, sticky, terminal winter buds that look like they were shellacked, and can scarcely wait to burst open on the first warm days of spring.

Aesculus-hippocastanum-horse chestnut-winter bud

Ailanthus altissima – Tree of heaven:  This Chinese tree is such a successful weedy invader throughout North America, where it was once grown as a street tree,  its clones, suckers and self-seeded saplings pop up in cracks in the pavement and untended lots everywhere. It is more likely to be described as “tree of hell” than its normal common name.  Fast-growing, it matures at 60-80 feet (18-24 metres), its bark green and smooth on young trees, but grey with rough furrows on older trees.  Tree of heaven gained notoriety in 1943 when it was featured as the central metaphor in the Betty Smith novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Ailanthus altissima-tree of heaven-winter bark-trunk

Alnus incana – European grey alder: Look up from the smooth, lenticel-engraved bark of grey alder in winter, and you’ll see the remnants of last summer: the little black, seed-bearing, female cones. Grey alder grows naturally in damp soil, but is also tolerant of dry soil. It can reach 50 feet (15 metres).

Alnus-incana-grey alder-winter bark

Betula alleghaniensis – Yellow birch: If you see yellow birch in winter with its shiny, peeling bark and horizontal lenticels , you’re forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled upon a beautiful cherry. For that’s what a young yellow birch resembles.  It grows to 75 feet (23 metres) in ideal conditions.

Betula alleghaniensis-yellow birch-trunk-bark-winter

Betula ermanii – Erman’s birch: Though quite variable in appearance, Erman’s birch or Russian rock birch can have creamy-white bark like paper birch or resemble native river birch, in that older trees develop peeling, shredded bark in brown, gray, orange and white. Often multi-stemmed, Erman’s birch matures at around 60 feet (18 metres).

Betula ermanii-Erman's birch-bark-trunk-winter

Betula lenta – Cherry birch, Sweet birch:  I love this native birch, which should be grown much more than it is. The wood is used for furniture and flooring. The bark starts as a reddish-brown, turns dark gray, then develops thin scales as it ages. It grows to 50-60 feet (15-18 metres) in favorable conditions.

Betula lenta-cherry birch-winter bark

In autumn, cherry birch with its apricot orange leaves is an exquisite part of the fall color parade.

Betula lenta-Cherry birch-autumn color

Betula nigra – River birch:  As the name suggests, this is a tree for damp places, but not small places. When happy, it can reach 70 feet (21 metres), often multi-stemmed, its bark flaked with a patchwork of cream, buff, apricot and brown papery scales.

Betula nigra-river birch-winter-bark

Betula papyrifera – Paper birch: Don’t we all have a special place in our hearts for the paper birch? Even with its insect enemies – the bronze birch borer, birch leafminer – don’t we all think romantically of Robert Frost’s Birches? That shimmering white bark, the black hawk-eyes winking from the trunk, the leaves fluttering like tiny golden flags in autumn.

Betula papyrifera-paper birch-winter-bark-trunk

Paper birch grows to 70 feet (21 metres), often multi-stemmed; its brown park with pale lenticels eventually turns white.  Indeed, as Robert Frost once wrote, one could do much worse than be a swinger of birches, like the ones shown growing with hemlocks on the road behind my Lake Muskoka cottage.

Betula-papyrifera-birches-winter-Robert Frost

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii – White-barked Himalayan birch: Many experts consider this to be a finer landscape alternative than our native paper birch. Selected forms have shimmering-white bark on a slender, often multi-stemmed tree that reaches 30-40 feet (9-12 metres). Sadly, it is also susceptible in time to the bronze birch borer.

Betula jacquemontii-Himalayan birch-winter bark

Carpinus caroliniana – Blue beech, American hornbeam: This lovely little understory tree is at least as wide as it is tall (20-30 feet, 6-9 metres), with muscled grey bark (another of its common names is ‘musclewood’) and a fluted trunk. It’s one of my favourite northeastern natives, with delicate, birch-like leaves that turn orange in fall.

Carpinus caroliniana-Blue Beech-Winter-Bark

Carya cordiformis – Bitternut hickory:  When young, this tree’s bark is smooth and grey; as it matures to a height of 100 feet (30 metres) or more, the bark develops wavy ridges and regular vertical furrows.  Bitternut hickory lives about 200 years and its durable wood is used for furniture.

Carya cordiformis-bitternut hickory-winter-bark

Carya ovata – Shagbark hickory:  One of my favourite trunks to photograph, so illustrative of its common name. As a young tree, this hickory’s bark is grey and smooth; as it matures to over 120 feet (36 metres) in height   metres), the bark breaks into long, vertical plates which adhere to the bole in the middle while the ends curve away and produce the ‘shaggy’ look.  It is long-lived, to 300 years or more and produces edible nuts.

Carya ovata-shagbark hickory-winter bark

Castanea dentata – American chestnut:  There are precious few of these iconic trees left in North America, but Mount Pleasant Cemetery has a number of small specimens, their sawn upper limbs a clue to the introduced chestnut blight that decimated the North American population in the early 20th century.  A Carolinian species native to the northern shore of Lake Erie, it once grew to lofty heights of over 100 feet (30 metres), but is now seen in the wild as small sprout trees from dead stumps. The trunk on the smallish tree below with its interlaced furrows and ridges indicates its old age; young bark is smooth and chestnut-brown.

Castanea dentata-American chestnut-winter bark

Castanea mollissima – Chinese chestnut: A small-medium sized tree growing to about 40 feet (12 metres) with an open canopy and wide-spreading branches, Chinese chestnut is resistant to the chestnut blight that kills American chestnut. Like the tree below with its brown, ridged bark, foliage is marcescent, with leaves often persisting on the tree throughout winter. It produces edible nuts (though not the delicacies of the sweet Spanish chestnut) and is currently the subject of experiments to produce a viable hybrid with the American chestnut.

Castanea mollissima-Chinese chetnut-winter-bark

Catalpa speciosa – Northern catalpa:  Of all the sylva of the American forest, Northern catalpa is the most tropical in appearance, with purple-splotched white flowers held in big panicles.. Though native to a relatively small swath from Kansas south to Texas and east to Louisiana, it is a remarkably hardy tree and thrives in Toronto (USDA Zone 5, like Chicago). It’s bark is grey-brown with shallow fissures and its crown is irregular with masses of crooked branches that give it a witchy appearance. However, certain trees, interestingly, develop a tall, narrower profile than the one below.

Catalpa speciosa-northern catalpa-winter

Celtis occidentalis – Hackberry: This is one of those nondescript, native trees (to 60 feet – 18 metres) that nonetheless proves its worth as a pollution-tolerant choice for city streets. Its bark is smooth and greyish when young, but as it matures it develops corky wart-like bumps that form wavy, vertical ridges.

Celtis occidentalis-hackberry-bark-winter

Cercidiphyllum japonicum – Katsura: This most elegant of Asian trees has bark that starts out smooth, but later splits into thin, papery strips as it grows (often multi-stemmed) to a height of 30-40 feet (9-12 metres) or more.  Its senescing, heart-shaped leaves produce maltose, which in the right conditions produces a burnt sugar aroma as one walks near them in autumn.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum-katsura-bark-winter

Katsura is a dioecious species, meaning there are male and female trees. In winter, the remnants of last summer’s fruit pods often decorate the canopy of a female katsura tree.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum-Katsura-female-capsules-winter

Cladrastis kentukea – Yellowwood : This is a favourite tree of mine when it deigns to flower in late spring or early summer with masses of pendulous, wisteria-like, white flower clusters (below) – an auspicious event that happens once every 3 or 4 years, if you’re lucky! It’s native to the southern U.S. but hardy here in Toronto, though subject to sunscald in winter.  Bark is smooth, grey and beech-like on a small-medium tree reaching 30-50 feet (10-15 metres).

Cladrastis kentukea-Yellowwood-winter-bark

The spectacular, cascading flowers of the yellowwood aren’t produced every year, but they are a beautiful sight when they are, as here in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Cladrastis kentukea-Yellowwood-flowers

Cornus mas – Cornelian cherry:  One of my favourite shrubs or small trees, quite likely because its bright-yellow umbel flowers are among the very first to bloom in late winter or early spring. This dogwood, native to Europe and western Asia,  reaches 20 feet (9 metres) tall and almost as wide, and has the prettiest mottled tan-and-cream bark on its slender trunk(s).

Cornus mas-Cornelian cherry-winter-bark

Cornus sanguinea – Common European dogwood – There are shrubs, of course, that boast brilliant winter bark, and none is more beautiful than the selections of European dogwood that celebrate the cold ‘midwinter’. This is ‘Midwinter Beauty’, below, but ‘Midwinter Fire’ is just as brilliant, with blazing sunset colours against a snowy landscape.  Be sure to cut back your Cornus sanguinea in early spring in order to guarantee bright stem colour from the new growth in the following winter.

Cornus sanguinea-'Winter Beauty'-dogwood

Cornus sericea – Red-osier dogwood: Though it might be common and a little old hat by now, the red canes of the new growth of ultra-hardy red-osier dogwood are always luminous in the winter garden. But do remember that you need to cut back the older canes in late winter or early spring, in order to encourage the bright-red colour of the new ones for the following winter.

Cornus sericea-red winter stems

Cornus sericea ‘Flavamirea’ – Yellow-twig dogwood: I love the golden canes of yellow-twig dogwood in winter; they add a little pool of sunlight to an otherwise barren spot. Left unpruned, this dogwood can reach 8 feet (2.4 metres), but as with red-osier dogwood, its brilliant colour is produced on new growth, so an annual cutting-back in late winter or early spring is necessary to ensure a good show.

Cornus sericea 'Flavamirea'-gold winter stems

And in case you’re wondering what to plant beneath those lovely golden stems, how about a sea of blue-flowered Siberian squill (Scilla siberica)?

Cornus sericea 'Flavamirea' & Scilla siberica

Corylus colurna – Turkish filbert or hazel:  A refined, pyramidal shape, relatively small stature (around 45 feet or 14 metres tall in colder regions) and problem-free demeanor often result in this tree being recommended for use in small gardens. It produces small, edible, but non-commercial nuts; however, its hardiness makes it a good rootstock for orchard species of filbert and hazel. In winter, below, the light brown, corky, flaking trunk and bark are quite attractive.

Corylus colurna-Turkish filbert-winter-bark

Fagus grandifolia – American beech:  This beloved, stately native of our northeast forests is under attack from beech bark fungal disease, which is vectored by an introduced European scale insect feeding on sap and ultimately leads to formation of a canker that causes severe die-back.  I cannot imagine what the deep woods behind our cottage on Lake Muskoka would look like without the muscled, grey bark and stout trunk of the American beech, below.

Fagus grandifolia-American beech-winter-bark

Fagus sylvatica – European beech: – A beautiful tree with a commanding presence, up to 90 feet (27 metres) tall,  and many cultivars that feature pyramidal or weeping shape and colourful leaves.  Sadly, the same beech bark disease (BBD) as occurs on native beeches is also claiming mature European beeches, like the magnificent copper beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Cuprea’) shown below.

Fagus sylvatica 'Cuprea'-copper beech-winter-bark

Fraxinus pensylvanica – Green ash:  If there are any healthy native ashes left standing in North America after the reign of terror of the emerald ash borer, their trunks will look something like the one below, with its grey, ridged, corky bark. (Speaking personally, we lost our ash to EAB a few years ago, and most other ashes in Toronto will be removed in time.)

Fraxinus pensylvanica-green ash-winter bark-trunk

Ginkgo biloba – Maidenhair tree: As distinctive as the fan-shaped leaves of this stately deciduous conifer are – and luscious yellow in autumn – the brown bark is also attractive, with deep furrows and raised ridges. In winter, you can look up into the crown of a ginkgo and see the short spurs bearing the axial winter buds lining the bare branches.

Ginkgo biloba-maidenhair tree-winter-bark-spurs

Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis – Thornless Honey locust: I am told that if you look carefully at the branching of a thornless honey locust, you’ll see a distinctive zigzag pattern to the growth of the twigs. The bark on young trees is a smooth olive-brown; as the tree ages, it becomes grey, fissured and flaky, often revealing the red under-bark. This form has a lack of vicious thorns, which distinguishes it from the main species. The elegant canopy created by the fine-textured foliage of honey locust has resulted in it being selected for cultivars like ‘Shademaster’, ‘Moraine’ and ‘Sunburst’. Sadly, honey locusts are subject to disease and insect pests.  And despite being called “honey locust”, they’re not much visited by bees; the name actually derived from the sweet pulp within the seedpods.

Gleditsia triacanthos-var. inermis-thornless honey locust-winter

Gymnocladus dioicus – Kentucky coffeetree – The Latin name Gymnocladus means “naked branch”, and describes the tree’s propensity for leafing out late and dropping its leaves early in autumn, thus leaving naked branches for most of the year. “Dioicus” describes its reproductive strategy, dioecy, meaning male and female flowers are borne on separate trees. On the ‘species at risk’ list in Ontario, Kentucky coffeetree once grew abundantly in southwest Ontario at the northern limit of its native range. But trees in Toronto do very well, and male trees (more desirable because of the huge, rattling seedpods of female trees) are available in the city’s Urban Forestry boulevard tree-planting program. The scaly bark is grey-brown and fissured on trees that reach 50-80 feet (24 metres) at maturity.

Gymnocladus dioicus-Kentucky coffeetree-winter bark-trunk

Those lush Kentucky coffeetree leaves, incidentally, are doubly compound or ‘bipinnately compound’ – and the largest leaves of any deciduous North American tree.  Their intricacy makes the canopy spectacularly beautiful in summer, below.

Gymnocladus dioicus-Kentucky coffeetree-bipinnate foliage

Juglans cinerea – Butternut: We once had a tall butternut tree in the back of our garden. It produced ridged, oval, sticky green fruits that the squirrels ate, leaving husks all over the lawn (like black walnut, below).  My husband loved a particular curved branch that extended across our garden, and I loved its history as a dye plant for the brown uniforms of the Confederate Army (the soldiers were nicknamed “butternuts”). Sadly, in the 1990s, it developed the butternut canker that would ultimately kill it – and has caused its population to decline throughout North America. I’m delighted that the tree below still survives in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, its trunk layered with grey-brown, diamond-ridged bark.

Juglans cinerea-Butternut-bark-trunk-winter

Juglans nigra – Black walnut: I live right under a huge black walnut, below – or perhaps I should call it a raccoon home…..Though the big green walnuts drive me crazy in the fall as they rain down on my roof like billiard balls, and the tree frightens me on a night like the one earlier this week, when an ice storm coated all the limbs, I do adore its graceful canopy and the cardinals that sing in its branches just above my bedroom ceiling.  But my next-door neighbour and I have spent a fortune on arborists over the decades to cable its limbs and restrain its exuberance, while still providing lots of growth points.

Juglans nigra-Black walnut-over house

Black walnut has a sturdy trunk with bark that’s braided with diamond-patterned furrows. From the time the United States was colonized in the early 1600s, black walnut wood was recognized as superior, and used for cabinet-making and gunstocks. The tree can reach 100 feet (30 metres) in moist, deep soil, and ensures its place in the natural forest by secreting juglone from its roots, bark, shoots and leaves. The botanical name for this is allelopathy, but many natural understory shade plants are unaffected by juglone.

Juglans-nigra-Black walnut-winter-bark

And… because I’m not really happy with my winter photos of black walnut, here’s a summer shot illustrating that elegant canopy. Isn’t this spectacular?

Juglans nigra-black walnut-summer canopy

Larix kaempferi – Japanese larch: The larches, like dawn redwood and bald cypress, are deciduous conifers that shed their needle-like leaves in autumn.  They perform well in damp soil (the one below is growing in the run-off of a water feature) and turn yellow in autumn. Japanese larch can grow to 80 feet at maturity, its trunk reaching 3-4 feet (90-120 cm) in diameter. A young tree like this one still has its smooth grey-brown bark; in time, it will form plate-like strips that peel off to reveal the red underbark.

Larix kaempferi-Japanese larch-winter

Larix laricina – Eastern tamarack: Though it prefers the cool, wet ground of sphagnum bogs or muskeg in the north country (it grows the furthest north of any tree in North America), the tamarack can be grown in adequately moist soil in a garden, too.  Reaching 20-35 feet (6-15 metres) in height, it can be recognized by its slender profile, feathery leaves that turn brilliant-gold in autumn and dark cones that remain on the tree for years. Its dark grey-brown bark is thin and scaly.  And, as one observer says: “In winter, it is the deadest-looking vegetation on the globe.”

Larix laricina-eastern tamarack-bark-winter

Liquidambar styraciflua – Sweetgum: Perhaps if I lived in Virginia or North Carolina or Alabama where indigenous sweetgum trees grow in abandoned fields, I might have a more jaded view of this tall, majestic native southerner. But I have long adored the tall sweetgum that towers majestically over the stone angel in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, especially in autumn when the star-shaped leaves take on yellow, amber, scarlet and crimson hues and the “gum balls” dangle from the canopy. (See photo below.) Sweetgum grows 60-75 feet (18-23 metres) tall and 40-55 feet (12-17 metres) wide. Back in the pioneer days, the resinous gum exuded by the tree was used as chewing gum; it was also given to Civil War soldiers to treat dysentery.  Though sweetgum isn’t native to Canada, we certainly saw a lot of gumwood trim used in Toronto houses at one time – including one I owned. If I were young, I would plant a small liquidambar in my garden; in the meantime, I’ll enjoy standing under that sweetgum in the cemetery.

Liquidambar styraciflua-Sweetgum-Winter-Bark-Trunk

My favourite sweetgum watches over this stone angel in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. This is how it looks in autumn.


Liriodendron tulipifera – Tuliptree, Yellow poplar: The tallest eastern hardwood, tuliptree can grow as high as 160 feet (50 metres) in the rich forests of the Southern Piedmont in Virginia and Georgia. In its stands in Norfolk County in southern Ontario near Lake Erie, at the northern limit of its native range, it tends to reach a more modest height at maturity. Its bark is furrowed and brown with intersecting ridges. In the wild its trunk can remain limbless for up to 50 feet (15 metres) before branching out. Below is the winter bark of a lovely variegated cultivar called ‘Majestic Beauty’.

Liriodendron tulipifera 'Majestic Beauty'-variegated tuliptree-winter-trunk

Liriodendron flowers are exquisite, like yellow chalices (i.e. tulips) flamed with orange, and very attractive to bees. (In fact, the main nectar flow for an Atlanta beekeeper I’ve interviewed is April, when it flowers in the Georgia forests.)

Liriodendron tulipifera-flower

Malus ‘Dolgo’ – Crabapple:  Crabapples aren’t known for their attractive bark, but the “patchwork quilt” effect on the trunk of many crabs is often enough to aid in their identification in winter.  This is old-fashioned ‘Dolgo’; its large fruit make it one of the best selections for crabapple jelly.

Malus 'Dolgo'-crab apple-winter-bark-trunk

Malus tschonoskii – Pillar apple, Chonosuki crab: Here’s an unusual small tree, native to Japan, quite rare in cultivation and one that is often mistaken for a cherry in winter, because of its prunus-like bark.  (In fact, pillar apple was once considered to be a pear, and placed in the Pyrus genus.)  Narrowly upright to around 30 feet (9 metres), it  puts on a beautiful show in autumn, when the multi-colored red, orange and gold foliage is arrayed against the tree’s smooth, grey limbs.

Malus tschonoskii-Pillar apple-winter-bark

Metasequoia glyptostroboides – Dawn redwood: An iconic “fossil tree”, once thought extinct, until a remarkable series of events featuring its modern discovery in the 1940s in the mountains of Hubei, China, and the detective work of Chinese botanists who were able to connect it to an ancient fossil studied by a Japanese paleobotanist a few years earlier. Though I decided to focus this winter bark blog on deciduous trees, who cannot appreciate the amazing, fibrous, peeling, red-and-brown bark and perfect, conical form of the dawn redwood?  And since, like the gingko, it’s a ‘deciduous conifer’, it met half the criteria in any case. Dawn redwood can reach at least 100 feet (30 metres) in perfect conditions, which in China include shady, moist sites near water, especially ravines and creek banks.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides-dawn redwood-winter-bark-trunk

Morus rubra – Red mulberry:  This Eastern North America native with its brown, furrowed bark and spreading crown is often confused with the Asian white mulberry (M. alba), which was imported from China to create a silk-spinning industry and later became an invasive in many regions. Although Donald Culross Peattie wrote that Choctaw women made a shawl from red mulberry inner bark, the native tree did not find favour with silkworms. But red mulberry’s blackberry-like fruit does find favour with birds and small animals, not to mention foragers who use it in jams, pies and cordials.

Morus rubra-red mulberry-winter-bark-trunk

Ostrya virginiana – Eastern ironwood, American hophornbeam:   Donald Culross Peattie writes of this small, native, understory tree in his wonderful A Natural History of Trees of Central and Eastern North America:  In our rich sylva, a little tree like the Ironwood melts into the summer greenery, or the silver intricacy of naked twigs in the winter months, in a way that makes it difficult to pick out and identify……. Everything about this little tree is at once serviceable and self-effacing.  Such members of any society are easily overlooked, but well worth knowing.” In the winter, it’s the bark of the trunk that’s most noticeable: greyish brown, with fine, flaked scales, covering wood that is the second hardest (after Cornus florida) of all native trees. In the canopy, like little damselflies suspended from the branches, are the old catkins, flying alongside the odd old leaf, dainty reminders of the summer past.

Ostrya virginiana-Ironwood-hophornbeam-winter-bark-trunk

Parrotia persica – Persian ironwood:  There is one, lonely Persian parrotia in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and it is a sweet little thing. A witch hazel relative native to Iran and the Caucasus, it has leathery leaves that turn myriad shades of gold, orange and crimson in autumn – but not in a fireworks way (in Toronto at least), more ‘a few here and a few there’. Growing to 40 feet (12 metres) with a dense, spreading crown, it features attractive, smooth, mottled bark, but branching starts so low on the tree, it’s a challenge to make a good photo of the trunk.


Phellodendron amurense – Amur cork tree: I am very fond of this small Asian tree (30-45 feet, 9-14 metres). It bears lovely compound foliage that turns a soft-yellow in autumn, clusters of deep-blue fruit (beloved by robins) and interesting, ridged, corky bark. It’s most happy in moist, rich soil, but will tolerate some drought. Dioecious, the female trees have proven invasive in certain warmer regions in North America.

Phellodendron amurense-Amur cork tree-winter-bark-trunk

Platanus x acerifolia – London plane tree: There is no mistaking this handsome tree, a hybrid of the Oriental plane tree (P. orientalis) and the American sycamore (P. occidentalis). Its smooth, mottled cream-olive-brown exfoliating bark graces a stocky trunk and branches on a tree that can reach 80 feet (24 metres) in height and almost as much in spread. Much more pollution-tolerant than its American parent (below), London plane trees grace city avenues throughout the temperate world.

Platanus x acerifolia-London plane-winter

Here’s a closeup of the gorgeous mottled bark of London plane tree.

Platanus x acerifolia bark-London plane-close-up

Platanus occidentalis – American sycamore:  This beloved native American tree, one of the parents of London plane tree, above, grows in a few spots in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, at the northern limit of its hardiness. On older trees, the trunk loses its mottled appearance and develops tight, geometric scales, but the limbs still show the exfoliating, leopardskin colouration. Sycamores – the largest deciduous trees in North America –  are the stuff of legend in the eastern United States, especially in the bottomlands of the Ohio Valley, where they once grew to heights of 160 feet (49 metres) with trunks 13 feet (4 metres) in diameter. Their distinctive, hanging ‘buttonball” fruit is a tight, spherical aggregation of achenes – seeds fixed with little bit of fluff to aid them on the wind.

Platanus occidentalis-American sycamore-winter bark-trunk

Populus alba – White poplar: Native to Europe, Asia and North Africa, this large poplar was introduced into North America in 1748 and has been so successful at propagating itself that it is now on the pernicious weed list of many regions. It grows 50-75 feet tall (15-23 metres) or more. The big trunk on old trees is dark-grey, but the upper branches are snow-white and very beautiful, especially with the silvery backs of the blue-green, maple-like, summer leaves fluttering in the wind.

Populus alba-White poplar-winter bark

Prunus maackii – Amur cherry:  I love this rugged little cherry with its lustrous, curling, coppery-brown bark on young trees. Native to Manchuria and southeadt Russia, it was discovered by Russian naturalist Richard Maak in 1855 on the banks of the Amur River. Its extreme hardiness (USDA Zone 3) destined it for use as a street tree in prairie cities. It normally reaches 15-25 feet (4.6-6 metres) in height and width, but can grow taller in ideal conditions – which means the moist soil of the summer monsoon region of China.

Prunus maackii-Amur cherry-winter-bark-trunk

Here is Amur cherry in May when the white chokecherry flower clusters are in bloom, below. This is in a small courtyard at Toronto Botanical Garden, where they have cleverly underplanted it with bugleweed (Ajuga).

Prunus maackii-Amur cherry-flowers

Prunus serrula – Tibetan cherry, also called birchbark and paperbark cherry, makes quite a splash with its shiny, coppery-red trunk on a small tree that reaches 20-30 feet (6 -8 metres). Its foliage is narrow and willow-like, and it bars down-facing clusters of unremarkable, single, white flowers in early spring.  Strangely, although it’s purported to be hardy to USDA Zone 5, I’ve never seen it in the east, either in Canada or the U.S. (though there’s supposed to be on in the Rock Garden at New York Botanical Garden).

Prunus serrula-Tibetan cherry-winter bark























Prunus serrulata – Japanese cherry: Perhaps no other bark is as well-known and beloved as the shiny, smooth, lenticel-etched bark of the myriad Japanese cherry trees. This is because the trees (called sakura in Japan) are part of an annual Japanese spring tradition called hanami, or cherry blossom festival. Below is the bark of ‘Shogetsu’, a late-blooming, pale pink, double-flowered Japanese cherry.

Prunus serrulata 'Shogetsu'-Japanese cherry-winter bark-trunk

Pterocarya fraxinifolia – Caucasian wingnut: I’ve only seen this broad, majestic, walnut relative in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where it dangles its 12-inch (30 cm) green fruit chains like long, emerald earrings from amongst the lush, pinnate foliage.  Native to Iran and Central Asia, Caucasian wingnut is fast-growing to 80 feet (24 metres) tall with a 60 foot (16 metres) spread.  Often multi-trunked, the bark is grey-brown, with long, ridged furrows. As in the photo below, the low branching and massive weight of the limbs often necessitates cabling.

Pterocarya fraxinifolia-Caucasian wingnut-winter bark

Here are those amazing green fruits of the Caucasian wingnut.


Quercus alba – Eastern white oak: At maturity, the white oak wears the word ‘majestic’ naturally. Maturing at 60-100 feet with a spread up to 50 feet (15 metres), its stocky trunk with scaly, grey bark often peeling in plates and patches, last year’s leaves hanging on in places to ……

Quercus alba-white oak-winter-canopy-bark

…. its massive canopy and large limbs – all describe the tree many naturalists revere as the best in the forest. Listen to Donald Culross Peattie, from his wonderful A Natural History of Trees of Central and Eastern North America:  If Oak is the king of trees, as tradition has it, then the White Oak, throughout its range, is the king of kings…no other tree in our sylva has so great a spread. The mighty branches themselves, often fifty feet long or more, leave the trunk nearly at right angles and extend their arms benignantly above the generations of men who pass beneath them.  Indeed, the fortunate possessor of an old White Oak, owns a sort of second home, an outdoor mansion of shade, and greenery, and leafy music.”   Here is an autumn image of an “outdoor mansion” built of white oak.

Quercus alba-White oak-autumn color

Quercus macrocarpa – Bur oak: Not particularly well-known, even in southern Ontario where it is the most common native oak, this eastern North American tree defines “adaptable”. It likes cold winters and hot summers and tolerates a variety of soil types and moisture (though it is generally found on flood plains). Rugged and handsome with ridged, grey bark on a tree that reaches 50 to 100 feet (15-30 metres), depending on conditions, it is a pollution-tolerant choice for those who want a sturdy, wildlife-friendly native oak.

Quercus macrocarpa-bur oak-winter bark

Quercus palustris – Pin oak: Native to the Carolinian zone near Lake Erie, pin oak prefers moist places (“palustris” means water-loving) but seems to survive in Toronto with normal garden irrigation. It tolerates clay but must have acidic soil; alkaline conditions will cause chlorosis and yellowing of the leaves.  Its neat, pyramidal shape, reasonable height (60 feet – 18 metres) and beautiful fall color recommend it – provided soil pH is considered. This is the dense horizontal branching of a pin oak in winter. Note that the bark is changing its habit from grey-brown and fairly smooth to thinly-ridged and furrowed.

Quercus palustris-pin oak-winter bark-trunk

Here is the spectacular fall colour of pin oaks in Toronto. The orange leaf colour in the tree at left is almost certainly a result of chlorosis from localized alkaline soil.

Quercus palustris-pin oak-fall colour

Quercus rubra – Northern red oak: Perhaps because they grow all around us, along with white pines, on the granite bedrock of Lake Muskoka, I adore Northern red oaks. From their boughs, I hear the cheeky call of the blue jays, the chattering of chickadees, the peeeeep of the foraging downy woodpecker. Their abundant acorns feed squirrels and chipmunks.  They turn glowing amber to deep red in autumn, long after the red and sugar maples have lost their leaves. Up there, the enemy is a dry summer and the odd infestation of army caterpillars. They tend not to grow as tall on granite as red oaks do here in the city, where they can reach 60 to 70 feet (18-21 metres) and a spread of 40 – 60 feet (12-18 metres), with greyish bark ridged with shallow furrows.

Quercus rubra-northern red oak-winter-bark

Quercus Crimson Spire™ – Hybrid Oak: There are several fastigiate oaks for use in smaller spaces, but this tightly columnar hybrid selection (Quercus ‘Crimschmidt’) of English oak (Q. robur) and white oak (Q. alba) is a stunning tree. It grows to 45 feet (14 metres) tall and 15 feet (4.5 metres) wide. As for the winter bark, there are so many marcescent leaves held on to Crimson Spire until spring, it is truthfully somewhat difficult to appreciate the bark without standing right beside the trunk.

Quercus Crimson Spire-oak-'Crimschmidt'-winter-marcescent leaves

Robinia pseudoacacia – Black locust: On a warm, late spring night, sometime around the first week of June in Toronto, an enchanting perfume wafts on the air – a scent that reminds some people of orange blossoms. If you chase it down, or rather “up”, you’ll find it’s coming from the abundant, white flower clusters of a tall tree with pea-like leaves. So sweet are the flowers of black locust that the volatile oil has been used as an absolute in the perfume industry, and the flowers produce a honey so clear, it’s said to look like the glass that holds it. Though indigenous to the central Appalachians, black locust has successfully made its way throughout North America and Europe – partly through commerce, and partly through its highly invasive self-seeding. There is no mistaking the bark of a black locust; it is thick and deeply grooved in a ropy pattern, on a trunk that’s often ramrod straight, as below. Though certain populations of very straight, high-branching black locusts were lent the name ‘shipmast locust’, the heavy, decay-resistant wood was evidently used for ship keels, not for masting, which requires lighter softwoods.

Robinia pseudoacacia-Black locust-winter-trunk

Salix × sepulcralis ‘Chrysocoma’ – Weeping willow:  What can you say about a grand weeping willow?  In late winter or early spring, when the long shoots brighten and the dainty catkins open, it’s as if the tree draped itself with dangling jewelry of the finest gold. Of course, you can also say the wood is brittle and prone to breaking, the fallen shoots make a terrible mess in small gardens, the tree wreaks havoc with underground plumbing and though it’s a rapid grower, it also declines quickly. Weeping willow bark is deeply grooved with patterned ridges.

Salix x sepulcralis 'Chrysocoma'-Golden weeping willow-winter-bark

Sorbus aucuparia ‘Rossica’ – Russian mountain ash:  Another ultra-hardy pyramidal tree for the small garden, this selection of mountain ash bears clusters of white flowers in late spring and bird-friendly orange fruit in autumn as the compound leaves change colour to copper-orange.  It grows around 30 feet (9 metres) tall with an 18 foot (5.5 metre) spread. On young trees, the bark is dark-brownish-grey and shiny with prominent lenticels; as the tree ages, the bark splits and develops cracks and scales. Mountain ash, or rowan as it’s called in Britain, rarely lives more than 80 years, and is susceptible to a number of diseases.

Sorbus aucuparia 'Rossica'-mountain ash-winter bark

Stewartia pseudocamellia – Korean Stewartia: Though they are fine collector plants, there aren’t many stewartias in the Toronto region; they are not reliably hardy and need moist soil and protection from late day sun.  I photographed my little winter specimen in a courtyard at the Toronto Botanical Garden, where it gets morning sun and is sheltered from cold wind. However, it’s tempting to seek out one of the few specialist nurseries that sell stewartia,for its luscious, camellia-like, white, June blossoms, its magnificent autumn leaf colour and this gorgeous mottled cream-and-brown bark.  Korean stewartia grows to 40 feet (12 metres) with a 30 foot (9 metres) spread, beginning to branch outward very close to the ground. 

Stewartia pseudocamellia-winter bark

Tilia cordata – Littleleaf linden:  When the lindens – or, as the English call them, “limes” – flower in early summer, the air is sweet beneath their boughs.  Bees, hover flies and butterflies buzz in the flowers, as befits a genus that produces a monofloral honey. In the United States, basswood (T. americana) and white basswood (T. heterophylla), aka “the bee tree” are the beekeeper’s friends, but in eastern Europe, many tilia species are used for honey production. (See my pollinator array photo below).   Littleleaf linden has been a popular street tree and specimen tree in Toronto, but those who have tried to garden under it rue the gloomy shade from its broad crown. It is densely-branched and reaches 60 feet (18 metres) with a 40 foot (12 metres) spread. Linden bark is grey and shallowly fissured.

Tilia cordata-Littleleaf linden-winter-bark

Pollinators forage on linden flowers, below. Clockwise from top left, metallic green bee, swallowtail butterfly and European honey bee on American basswood (T. americana) flowers; hoverfly on Caucasian lime (T. x euchlora) flowers. Large-scale bumble bee deaths of bees nectaring on Tilia species have been reported in the U.S. and Europe, but such toxicity is not well understood. (I have personally seen bumble bees lying in gardens under flowering lindens).  It is now hypothesized that bumble bees will often expend all their energy foraging on lindens whose nectar is depleted, leading to collapse and death.

Tilia-pollinators-Linden flowers-Lime-Basswood

Ulmus americana – American elm: It is bittersweet looking up into the winter crown of a mature American elm, for this old tree is a survivor of a plague that decimated the landscape of its kin. When Dutch elm disease was first discovered near port cities in eastern North America in 1930, imported from Europe on elm logs to be milled for veneer, there were an estimated 77 million elms on the continent. Six decades later, that number had been reduced by 75%. Today’s surviving trees stand alone, like this one, its grey bark ridged and fissured, its arching limbs (those that have not fallen to ice storms) giving way to the elegant drooping branchlets that mark its profile as unique.

Ulmus americana-American elm-winter-bark-trunk

Ulmus pumila – Siberian elm – Here is the winter bark of a successful invader, a tree once used for hedging in my neck of the woods, as one might use beech or privet. But Ulmus pumila is no wimpy privet; it ‘hedges’ its bets by waiting until the gardener is not looking, then shoots for the moon. Paradoxically, its specific epithet means ‘dwarf’, but it is anything but small. This tree, for example, with its diamond-furrowed bark and adventitious shoots emerging from cankers on the trunk, is well over 60 feet (18 metres).

Ulmus pumila-Siberian elm-winter-bark-trunk

Zelkova serrata – Japanese zelkova: The stately zelkova is my final winter bark entry, and a worthy one at that. This elm relative has grey-brown, beech-like bark with raised lenticels, exfoliating as the tree ages.     Pollution-tolerant, it is often planted as a fast-growing street tree, especially the cultivar ‘Green Vase’, which features ascending limbs, an upright shape and excellent fall colour. Zelkova reaches 70 feet (21 metres) at maturity with a 50-foot (15 metres) spread.

Zelkova serrata-winter-bark-trunk


Ornamental Grasses in Winter

Here we are in January, and the snow is flying outside my office window this morning. I often make fun of those ‘designing your garden for winter’ tips, because the reality in a climate like ours (unlike those beautiful European gardens with picturesque hoar frost ) is that heavy, wet snow or layers of ice from freezing rain tend to demolish the winter architecture of non-woody perennials and ornamental grasses.  I mean, seriously: the photo below is my Toronto back garden after a big snowstorm. No matter how persistent the winter structure of the plants, if nothing can actually be seen, it’s just a notion that doesn’t hold water. (Unless it’s frozen.)


Speaking of “frozen”, freezing rain or sleet can be not only beautiful, but quite dramatic in its effects in the garden. Below are winter arrangements in containers on my back deck featuring Carex ‘Red Rooster’ and southern magnolia leaves, among other things, on December 22, 2013, the day after Toronto’s historic ice storm. Look how the ice has coated each tawny blade. As beautiful as it was that morning, tinkling in the freezing air, that carex does not have the presence to be a player in the winter garden where I live.


Neither does Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima), though it looked lovely in my front pot at the beginning of winter (left over from my summer arrangement).


So what ornamental grasses are effective in the winter garden in our climate (Can. Zone 6b, USDA Zone 5), before it gets a 3-foot dump of snow, that is? For that, I like to use Toronto’s wonderful Music Garden as a beautiful illustration of the power of grasses to draw lines and create texture, even in snowy weather.  Look at this combination of ‘Hameln’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides), front, with Chinese maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) and its feathery plumes in the rear.


The low grass lining the curved path is again, ‘Hameln’ fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) and Chinese maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) on the right.


Here is ‘Hameln’ fountain grass with echinacea seedheads left to feed winter birds at the Music Garden.


You can see, below, why fountain grass got its name.


This very upright grass is ‘Karl Foerster’ feather grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora) in winter.


Here is ‘Karl Foerster’ feather grass with Toronto’s city skyline behind.


Though Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) doesn’t have quite the presence of some of the bigger grasses, it still manages to stay intact through early winter.


For more wintry grasses, let’s head on over to the Toronto Botanical Garden in late December or January. Here is a stand of switch grass (Panicum virgatum) in the spectacular Piet Oudolf-designed entry border.  This native grass is a very good choice for a winter garden, and popular with the birds in autumn as well.


These are the neat hummocks of grey moor grass (Sesleria nitida) under a fresh snowfall. (I changed this from S. autumnalis, when I discovered the planting plan.)


Japanese hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra) is often hiding under the snow, but makes a bronze-gold splash in early winter.


Similarly, blue fescue (Festuca glauca ‘Blue Glow’) is rather small to make a big impression in winter, but it offers texture in the first part at any rate.


And our native little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) looks lovely with a light dusting of snow, but gets lost as the snow deepens.


This is Korean feather grass (Calamagrosis brachytricha), which does persist fairly well through a few snows.


After freezing rain, you can often find ice crystals in the flowers of grasses like Korean feather grass.


Chinese maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) is a dependable winter fixture at the TBG….


….. and its big plume flowers look lovely with snow.


I love the way the narrow leaves of Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ curl in winter. This is March – not bad for 3 full months of the toughest season.


It’s a good idea to leave ornamental grasses through winter, providing another element of beauty for this long, desolate season. I like to time cutting them down in late winter or early spring, when the ground is still frozen, so I can walk freely around some of the bigger stands.  This was April 28th one year at the cottage – and I find a pair of shears does the trick.


Or, if you’re feeling brave, you could always follow the example of this gardener at the Music Garden, seen using a chainsaw to cut down the big grasses on April 23rd of the same year.


That’s a starter kit, anyway. This weekend, I’m heading up to our cottage on Lake Muskoka. The lake should be well on its way to freezing over and, depending on how much snow has fallen, I may glimpse a few flowers of switch grass poking out.  Stay warm!