The Wonderful Wizard of Winter: Native, Snow-Draped Canadian Hemlock

February 10th, 2011 Comments Off

Tsuga canadensis – Native Canadian Hemlock

I try very hard not to play favorites with the plants growing in and around my garden. In fact, you may have noticed that I’ll refer to a preferred species as ‘one of my favorites’, as opposed to ‘my favorite’. After all, I truly love each and every one of them, and I wouldn’t want to hurt any of their feelings. Still, there are a few stand-out, four-season beauties that I can not imagine living without. And in the great world of conifers, I must admit that I am quite partial to our native Tsuga canadensis, commonly known as the Canadian or Eastern hemlock. Though graceful and verdant year-round, Canadian hemlock is a true stunner in the winter garden. After a snow storm —when Tsuga canadensis is cloaked in a fresh coat of powder or ice— it’s impossible not to think of the enchanted forests of fairy tales. I absolutely adore this feathery, magical evergreen.

A few years ago —when I was planting an informal hedge of Canadian hemlock at a private residence— one of my garden clients told me that the shape of the hemlock tree reminded her of a wizard’s hat. Well I already liked this woman, but as soon as she said that, I knew I was going to love working with her. For long as I can remember, I’ve always thought of the Canadian hemlock as a Winter Wizard or even a Warlock (a masculine witch). And as a child, I loved playing beneath the tent-like boughs of hemlock stands; draped in heavy, sparkling white robes after a snow storm. Hemlock is a magnificent native tree; one I never grow tired of praising.

The pliant boughs of Tsuga canadensis are less likely to break when covered in heavy snow and ice

The outer branches of hemlock trees, as well as the tip or leader, are narrow and flexible. The pliant boughs give hemlock the distinctly cascading, somewhat melancholy appearance I find so enchanting. But more importantly, the springy quality of the outer wood gives this native tree an ability to shed snow and ice, avoiding winter breakage –a common problem for other conifers, such as white pine. Hemlock needles are softly rounded; blue-green on the top and silvery on the reverse (the shiny-whitish color is created by tiny openings along the backside of the needles called stomata, which —for lack of a better word— allow the tree to ‘breathe’). When breezes blow through a hemlock’s bows, the pale undersides of its needles are exposed to light; creating a subtle, shimmering effect. Growers have worked with this trees beautiful cascading habit and needle coloration, developing cultivars with mint-tinged branch tips and weeping forms. And because it responds well to pruning, eastern hemlock offers four-season privacy screening when grown as a soft, ever-green hedge in semi-shaded, moist sites. The feathery, deep green needles provide a lovely contrast and sensual backdrop in many of my garden designs.

The Tops of Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) boughs are covered with dark, blue-green needles

On the reverse side, Tsuga canadensis needles have a light, almost silvery-green color. And when wind blows through the branches, lifting and exposing the undersides of needles to flashes of light, the Canadian hemlock takes on a subtle, gorgeous, two-tone appearance.

With a North American range spanning from Nova Scotia southward to the mountains of Alabama and westward to Minnesota (USDA zones 3 – 8/9) Tsuga canadensis is commonly found in moist, shady woodlands; often along forest streams or cool, north-facing ridge lines. Because of their wide-spread but shallow-root tendency, hemlock are vulnerable to drought, but are less likely to be knocked down in high winds. Here at the northeastern crest of my ledgy site, substantial stands of native hemlock provide a safe haven and nesting habitat for local birds as well as food (seeds, twigs, bark and needles) and shelter for various mammals (including squirrels, porcupines and deer). Although hemlock can grow over 100 feet in ideal conditions, they typically reach 40-70 feet within their native range. When grown as a specimen tree in the open —or planted in small groups—hemlock will develop a soft, full, conical shape (yes, shaped quite like a wizard’s hat).

Because hemlock trees produce acidic tannins, they are quite disease and insect-resistant. However, there exists one recent and notable exception: the wooly adelgid (Adelges tsugae). Closely related to common aphids, this invasive insect pest —introduced from Asia— has the potential to wipe out native, eastern hemlock populations (read more about this pest and how infestations are treated at the UMass Extension Service website here). Although I have not seen the wooly adelgid in my immediate area, I am constantly on the lookout for this destructive insect when pruning hemlock hedges for my clients in early spring. Currently, the only effective, organic treatment for wooly adelgid is thorough, repeat applications of horticultural oil. Entomologists continue to search for natural, biological adelgid controls, and I have high hopes for the tree’s survival. I simply can not imagine the northeastern landscape without my beloved Winter Wizards…

This Canadian hemlock trio forms a soft, four-season screen at the northeastern edge of my garden

Here in late November, the Tsuga canadensis trio provides color and textural contrast and backdrop to the red-twig dogwood, birch and ornamental grasses in the foreground of the entry garden

This beautiful, weeping hemlock (Tsuga candensis ‘Pendula’) —pictured here at The Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts— is one of the finest examples, and uses of the pendulous form, that I have ever seen. See more photos, and read a bit about The Bridge of Flowers by revisiting this post (click here).

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Article and photos are ⓒ Michaela at TGE

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Papery, Peeling, Striped & Shaggy: Textural Bark Brings Warmth & Beauty To Stark, Wintery Landscapes…

December 15th, 2010 § 1

From peach and cream to reddish brown, the peeling bark of our native, paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is one of my favorite textures in the winter landscape…

Brr… It sure is cold outside. With temperatures hovering around 15 degrees fahrenheit here in Vermont, it takes an awful lot to stop me in my tracks for more than a minute or two. And yet this afternoon, as I walked up the garden path from the driveway, I couldn’t resist lingering outside to enjoy the light and snap a few quick photos to share. Winter is an incredible time for appreciating the subtler forms of botanical beauty -particularly the colors and textures of twigs and bark. Although most of the trees and shrubs in my garden were chosen for the quality of their form, foliage, flowers and berries, bark always plays a part in my plant selection as well.

Living in a remote forest-clearing, I’m lucky to be surrounded by woodlands filled with beautiful, native trees –including one of my favorites, the dramatic, white-barked paper birch (Betula papyrifera). Paper birch trees are gorgeous any time of the year, but in winter, the peachy-cream and cinnamon hues of their peeling bark really stand out against dark hillsides and brown tones in the landscape. The trunks of other native trees, including the common striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) with its snake-like bark, and dramatic shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), also add tremendous beauty to winter’s fine tapestry of hues and textures. Naked though they may be —stripped of their foliage for nearly six months out of the year— the deciduous trees and shrubs of New England remain a constant source of fascination to my eyes.

A dusting of snow enhances the cinnamon-colored bark of this oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) like a sprinkling of sweet sugar

Taking my cue from nature, I’ve added a wide variety of trees and shrubs with peeling, papery, striped and shaggy bark to my garden; adding visual interest throughout the quiet season. In winter, the surfaces of these textural plants enhance the beauty of outdoor spaces —including beds and borders, paths and walkways— as well as the views from the doors and windows of my house. Come December —as snow and ice begin to settle into the nooks an crannies on tree bark, woody stems and twigs— the colors and textures of these plants are intensified; adding to the winter-wonderland surrounding my home.

Now is great time to bundle up and make note of the subtle details in your home landscape. Conifers, as well as the brightly colored twigs and berries of deciduous trees and shrubs add an immense amount of beauty to the winter garden –of course. But also, keep the texture of shrub and tree bark in mind as well. In addition to the specimens pictured here, you may wish to consider Striped Maple cultivars (Acer pensylvanicum cvs.), Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), River birch (Betula nigra), Katsuratree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), Cinnamon Clethra (Clethra acuminata), Dogwood species and cultivars (Cornus), Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), and one of my all-time-favorite trees (and recent garden addition) Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica), among other texturally dramatic choices for the garden.

Come and take a peek at some of the beautiful colors and textures I enjoyed outside in the garden today; snapping photos until my fingers grew numb…

The peeling, cinnamon colored bark of Hydrangea quercifolia stands out beautifully against a backdrop of Juniperus squamata ‘Holger’ and Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’

The reptillian-looking bark of this Mountain Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera) is beautiful year-round, but when the leaves drop, it really stands out against a back-drop of snow…

The textural branches of native ninebark and cultivars (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’) adds color and movement to the winter landscape. Here, a tiny strip of peeling, patterned bark catches the wind on a December day…

Although the trunk of this Stewartia pseudocamilla will develop far more texture and color as it matures, the bark is still beautiful and interesting in youth…

Both the luminous cinnamon-red color —particularly when backlit as here— and curling texture of beautiful paperbark maple (Acer griseum) make it one of my favorite trees…

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Article and Photographs are ⓒ Michaela at TGE

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