form and foliage

Year round garden interest with minimal care


Trunk Show

Lagerstroemia fauriei

This Japanese crape myrtle at the Raulston Arboretum doesn’t need to be in flower to attract attention

We are known to wax poetic at Form and Foliage over the joys of, well, form and foliage.  Most of the time, that means that we show you gorgeous woody plants and their leaves, with a generous sprinkling of ornaments such as cones and berries.  Now, however, we’d like to direct your attention to a part of the plant that tends to get short shrift in garden photography, and in our view contributes much to a tree’s eye appeal: the trunk.

Quarryhill Botanical Garden

Acer griseum is commonly called paperbark maple and it is easy to see why

In fact, there are some trees, such as this paper bark maple (Acer griseum) photographed at Quarryhill Botanical Garden, that would be worth having even if they remained leafless!  The paper bark maple actually has very nice leaves, albeit not the most dramatic.  But the peeling bark adds texture and interest to the garden all year long.

strawberry tree

Arbutus ‘Marina’ is generally in a multi-stemmed form to get as much mileage from those trunks as possible

Another tree with peeling bark is Arbutus ‘Marina’, a hybrid cultivar of our native California madrone.  The young trees have semi-gloss, cinnamon bark that, when it ages, breaks open to display a chartreuse under-layer.  The evergreen leaves, flowers and fruit of this tree are all stunning, but the trunk is the attention-grabber.

Physocarpus Coppertina

We chose this ninebark Coppertina for its coppery leaves, but now we’re in love with the trunk

While we’re on the subject of peeling, let’s look at Physocarpus, a shrub whose trunk peels with such abandon that its common name is ninebark. We’ve never counted the layers, but we make a point of pruning this shrub to showcase the lovely textured trunk.  Like Arbutus ‘Marina’, ninebark has beautiful leaves (in colors that range from gold and lime to copper and maroon), flowers and berries.

California redwood, coast redwood

The branches on these 25 year old redwoods are now far above our heads, so we focus on the trunks

Not all trunks have to be burlesque strippers to command attention, however.  Some do it simply with grandeur and presence.  The redwood crown provides shade but the trunk adds sculptural and textural interest, as well as rich color that deepens in the winter rains.

Olea wilsonii, fruitless olive trees

Olive trees are one of the best selections for interesting trunks

Some trees, such as olives, are known for their naturally occurring intriguing, twisted shapes, which can be enhanced by careful pruning.  The tree on the right is showcasing the characteristic knobby protuberances that develop as the trees age. These olives were planted as small trees about 12 years ago, primarily for shade, but now also serve as sculpture.

Olea wilsonii, Arbutus 'Marina', Quercus agrifolia

A trunk trifecta of olives, Abutus ‘Marina’ and an ancient live oak

In this trunk trifecta, the olive trunks in the foreground are echoed by the cinnamon trunk of Arbutus ‘Marina’ in the middle and that of the aged live oak (Quercus agrifolia) in the rear. Color, texture, shape—these trunks have it all! And as we remind you repeatedly, they don’t hibernate in winter.

David's maple, Quarryhill Botanical Garden

An enormous Acer davidii at Quarryhill dominates its location with its strong trunk and lovely bark

This David’s maple is less than 25 years old and serves as a sculpture—and a bench!—in the woodland landscape of Quarryhill Botanical Garden.  It stands out against the surrounding thicket and provides plenty of interest, even when bare of foliage.

The Oregon Garden

Japanese larch ‘Diana’, its trunk covered with lichen, is a sight on a frosty winter morning in its leafless sparkle

Larches are unusual amongst conifers in that they drop their needles each year, leaving only bare trunk and branches.  The Larix kaempferi ‘Diana’, pictured above, holds court in late autumn at The Oregon Garden, with its shaggy, sculptural trunk and branches festooned with lichens.

Betula papyrifera

The winter landscape in this Bellingham WA garden is illuminated by the trunk of the paper birch

Some trunks make their statement by their color rather than their form or texture.  The stark white trunks of Betula papyrifera, or paper birch, are much more visible in winter when the tree is leafless.  On drab days they light up the garden and draw the eye.

Cornus stolonifera Arctic Fire

The trunk of this red-twig dogwood is so incendiary that its name – Arctic Fire – is patented!

Red-twig dogwoods (Cornus stolonifera spp) are an easy way to add boldly colored trunks to the winter landscape.  Unassuming shrubs when in leaf, they take center stage when wearing only their bare branches.  There are yellow-twigged versions, as well.

Japanese maple, red twigs, red stems

Vivid stems are the hallmark of the coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’)

Our ‘go to’ tree for red trunks and stems is the coral bark maple, whose botanical cultivar name ‘Sango Kaku’ means ‘coral tower’ or ‘coral pillar’ in Japanese.  The above shot was taken in spring as the tree is leafing out with chartreuse foliage, and the drama of the complementary colors (remember the color wheel!) is evident.

In autumn the trunk and leaves are nearly the same color

In autumn the trunk and leaves are nearly the same color

‘Sango Kaku’s autumn display is more muted, as the leaves turn to soft yellow-orange.

Japanese maple

Winter is when we appreciate the coral bark maple the most, when the leaves are gone and it is purely a ‘trunk show’

Coral bark maple is a lovely small tree that grows in full sun in our zone 9b.  There are dwarf varieties available, as well, such as ‘Aka Kawa Hime’.  The red tends to be most vivid on new growth, so the dwarf, slower growing cultivars will provide more eye candy at eye level.

Acer palmatum 'Mizuho Beni'

There are Japanese maples with golden trunks, as well, such as ‘Mizuho Beni’

Japanese maples have trunks with all shades of yellow, gold and green, as well as coral.  In addition, they have some of the loveliest shapes, most delectable new growth and gorgeous fall color of any trees.  Surely you have room for just one?

We’ve saved the most unusual trunk for last.  While some may call it a weeping Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii ‘Pendula’), others would just call it an elephant!:

elephant shaped tree

The ‘elephant’ at Buchholz & Buchholz Nursery in Oregon – a weeping Douglas fir


Worshipping at the Iseli Altar

conifers, winter garden, colored foliage, evergreens, Iseli Nursery

The display gardens at Iseli Nursery showcase a wide variety of conifers and companion plantings.

Conifer lovers from all over the world make the pilgrimage to the display gardens at Iseli Nursery in Boring, Oregon, which are immortalized on the company’s website and annual calendars and regularly featured in at least one blog.  As part of our trek to the conifer nirvana that is the Pacific Northwest, we clearly had to pay both a call and our respects.  We were curious as to whether we would find the gardens even more awe-inspiring ‘in the fresh’ than on the page.

Sculpted pines, pines, evergreen foliage, colored foliage, Iseli Nursery

We elected to focus on contrasting colors, shapes and textures, rather than specimens.

Indeed, we were struck with such a degree of sensory overload that we had trouble focusing at first (our eyes, that is, not the camera!)  As we began to take stock of the richness that surrounded us, we realized that there were two ways to view the garden, as indeed there are any garden–by sharpening our focus to pick out the detail of each discreet specimen, a goal already ably achieved by other chroniclers, or by letting our lens go wider and take in the enormous range of textures, colors and sizes with which the gardens abound.

Rich green, Carolina blue and citrine - color-blocking is VERY 2013!

Rich green, Carolina blue and citrine – color-blocking is VERY 2013!

In the photograph above we showcase three common selections in deep hues readily available across a range of genus, species and cultivars.  Skip the taxonomy for a bit and focus on how richly satisfying this simple combination is.

Iseli Nursery, colored foliage, conifers, gold foliage, blue foliage

Add a dimension to the color by varying the textures.

In the next shot, we stick with rich colors but vary the texture of the green specimen. In this case it’s a spiky, starburst shape, but it could be weepy, spreading, lacy or bristly.

Iseli Nursery, colored foliage, conifers, pastel foliage

Color-blocking with pastels.

If you shy from the bold and prefer your colors softer, there are copious choices.  Like the master color mixer who adds a drop of black to a gallon can of paint to produce a smokier hue, plant breeders have combined with nature to create velvety gray-greens, muted yellows and olive tints to satisfy those who seek more subtle statements.

conifers, evergreens, Iseli Nursery

Soft colors create a calmer mood.

In fact, as the photo above demonstrates, a border of mixed foliage need not be strident or harsh.

Iseli Nursery, mixed foliage border, Japanese maples, evergreens, colored folaige

Deciduous plantings add an even wider range of textures and colors to the conifers.

Adding deciduous plants such as Japanese maples or dogwoods softens the look still more and expands the range of colors, shapes and textures.  The grouping above adds a formal note with the sculpted Chamaecyparis in the center.

conifers, Iseli Nusery, weeping conifers

Monochromatic doesn’t mean boring!

If you are not a fan of colored foliage, you can stick with conventional green and vary the shape. Think of yourself as a sculptor, rather than a painter, and go for a dramatic weeper flanked by a shag carpet.  Admittedly, that bronze foliage in the background does a great job of highlighting the green.

variegated dogwood, Iseli, conifers, colored foliage

Once again, we add some deciduous foliage to mix it up even more.

Note how the Cornus contriversa ‘Variegata’ adds a shape, texture and color beyond that displayed by the conifers.  We love the way this ‘living room’ is decorated with a lemon-yellow carpet and a fuzzy green hassock.

Iseli Nursery, conifers, colored foliage

A velvety swath of turf grass soothes the eye and sets off the rich colors of the specimen plantings.

We will close with one of our favorite shots – a limited palette but a wide variety of shapes, sizes and textures, including the dramatically pendulous Picea abies ‘Cobra’, on the right, one of Iseli’s newest introductions.

Next stop: Buchholz & Buchholz!