The Winter Landscape Part Five: The Beauty Of Dormant Trees
All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
-William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963
by Elaine Christen
Broadleaf deciduous trees are usually admired mostly in summer, when their canopies provide shade, in fall when they give us a kaleidoscopic color treat, and in spring when blooming varieties break the gloomy spell of winter with cheerful blossoms. But don’t overlook winter as a prime season to enjoy the graceful structure and distinctive outline that dormant trees give to the landscape.
The process of dormancy is necessary for trees to survive the cold, dark months of winter. When photosynthesis stops, sugars from the leaves go back into the twigs, branches, trunk and roots. These stored sugars lower the freezing point of the tissues. At this point senescence of the leaves has occurred. As water and nutrients stop flowing to them, they die and fall. As the leaves decompose, they enrich the soil and feed the tree.
While trees are dormant, they are not entirely inactive. In late fall there is still warmth in the ground and the roots continue to grow slowly while the twigs have stopped completely. When the tree enters the first stage of dormancy a growth inhibitor is present in the tissues. After a certain period of chilling occurs, the growth inhibitor diminishes. In the second part of dormancy the buds begin to lose their cold hardiness, begin to swell, and then break.
Knowing this, it makes it easy to appreciate the amazing cycle of regeneration in an organism that can live for generations or even centuries.
Winter is a great time to see of the beautiful frames of bare trees. Last year’s bird nests that were invisible behind the leaves are revealed. The characteristic silhouettes of different species become apparent. Highlighted with frost or wind-blown snow, they become sculptural and enchanting.
March is a good time to prune trees in the Inland Northwest They are still dormant but will be active soon enough for the rising sap to quickly heal cuts. Pruning in fall can leave wounds unable to heal, which sometimes invites disease. The exception is the removal of broken branches and too-long whippy branches which might cause further damage in winter winds. Go ahead and prune these as necessary. As winter progresses, evaluate your trees for shape and make mental notes about cuts to be made. Too- thick canopies can be damaged by high winds. Thinning the canopy just 15-20%, allows wind to pass through more easily and also allows better air circulation, helping to prevent fungal diseases.
Dormant trees are pure potential. Each bud holds the promise of a leaf, a flower, a fruit, a twig. They sleep and wait for cues—lengthening days, warming temperatures. When the time is right the fat buds burst and a new cycle begins. As we wait for spring, take time to notice the bare trees while you can see their true character and appreciate the remarkable resilience they possess.
Thank you for following our series on The Winter Garden. Next up: the sixth and final installment, “Plans and Preparation”. We would be honored if you would check out our Facebook page as well as follow us on Twitter. Until next time!