All Bark, No Bite

Just five days before Thanksgiving, we continue to have unseasonable weather here in central Illinois. Although today’s temperatures will not match the Indian summer of last weekend, the sun’s warmth, crisp blue sky and fellow gardener’s urging beckoned me outside despite still recovering from the flu.

November is not my favorite month in the garden, particularly when there are still plenty of mundane cleanup chores to do before the holidays arrive. Normally by this time, the color and beauty of fall has been reduced to more detritus to be raked and bagged. But as I slowly walked around the yard this afternoon, trying to get some fresh air after being cooped up in the house, I took a decidedly exploratory look around the landscape.

There are still a few vestiges of fall color.

The three sweetgum lining the driveway still hold half their leaves — brilliant orange, reds and yellows contrasting against the cloudless blue sky.

Prunus calleryana saplings — once camouflaged among perennial foliage — stand out with a glossy red above the browning borders.

A newly-planted Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ simply glows underneath our front bedroom window.

But even these will soon succumb to colder nights and will be barren like the rest of the deciduous trees and shrubs in the yard. Despite recently adding more evergreens to our mixed borders, most of the color and texture in our landscape is provided by perennials and deciduous woodies. Once they have gone dormant, we will enter the truly ugly time of year in the garden, awaiting the light blanket of January snow.
I realized, though, this time of year is not bereft of color and texture. It simply comes from an inconspicuous source: bark. From the red-mahogany hues of the Cornus sericea (red twig dogwood), Prunus cerasus ‘North Star’ (cherry), and Cercis canadensis (red bud) to the white speckled smoothness of Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire’ (birch), bark provides a full spectrum of earth tones throughout the late fall and winter. For texture, we have the craggy skin of Gleditsia triacanthos (honeylocust) and Acer saccharum (sugar maple), the smoother grayness of Tilia cordata (linden) and Quercus rubra (northern red oak), and the flaked appearance of Malus (crabapple).

Cornus sericea (red twig dogwood)

Malus (crabapple)


Quercus rubra (northern red oak)


Acer saccharum (sugar maple)

Prunus cerasus ‘North Star’ (cherry)

Betula populifolia ‘Whitespire’ (birch)


Cercis canadensis (red bud)

The bark of each of these woody ornamentals, in combination with stands of dried ornamental grasses and an occasional evergreen, provides the visual structure of our home landscape until the midwinter bloom of hellebores and witch hazel signal the coming of a new growing season.

Please visit the Shutterfly photo album for more bark photos and other images from our garden today.

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