Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today

 
 

NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

The Best Season Ever: Planetree Bark

In January, the garden enters its most somber season. No plant is in flower, and few even have leaves, let alone ones that are still green. And yet, for some woody plants that are leafless—deciduous, in other words—the dead of winter is a peak season. These are the shrubs and trees with interesting bark.

 

At this time of year, foliage would be so much static on the screen, fog on the windshield: anything that gets in the way of the clearer view of the moment. Even though the unusual foliage of this kind of plane—Suttner's variegated—make the tree worth planting for that warm-weather show alone, the leaves' size and profusion do largely obscure the bark. Winter is the season for planetree bark to command the stage solo.

 

The bark of Platanus x acerifolia 'Suttneri' is typical, with large irregular patches that have flaked away to reveal deeper layers of contrasting shades. I'm holding a just-released patch in place, alongside a side branch that had emerged. (The branch is hidden behind my hand.) Bark around the base of branches is slower to release than in the smoother expanses between branches. There you can see one darker-tan outer layer directly beneath the outer one I'm holding a last flake of, which in turn has peeled away to reveal a still deeper layer that's a light pewter-gray.

 

Platanus x acerifolia Suttneri 122917 fingers exfoliated portion 122917 640

 

In the picture below, what looks like a slender trunk of some other kind of tree that had—darn it—sprouted right by the main trunk is, actually, a really low side shoot of the plane tree. Even so, its bark is completely intact, and is in yet another shade. 

 

Platanus x acerifolia Suttneri 122917 basal shoot exfoliating trunk 122917 640

 

In this shot, taken a bit higher up, you can see that same bark—fully in place, and with the faintest hint of green—also smoothly covering slender side branches. The contrast with the exfoliating and variegated appearance of older bark on the trunk is striking. 

 

Platanus x acerifolia Suttneri 122917 side basal shoots with exfoliating trunk 122917 640

 

As it turns out, exfoliating bark is generally the favored trick of older, thicker stems, from secondary limbs right down to the main trunk. When bark is interesting in terms of color but its surface is smooth and it's all firmly in place, it's normally occuring on branches that are slender as well as young.

 

Think about Siberian dogwood: only first-year stems have colorful bark. That of older stems is no longer colorful, nor does it exfoliate. It's just boring. In contast, young stems of stewartia, lacebark pine, tree clethra, heptacodium, yew, Chinese quince, and parrotia aren't interesting at all; only the bark of their older, thicker, and more mature stems is showy. For all of these trees, exfoliation is the primary contributor to that visual interest.

 

Bark of many forms of birch is perhaps the most famous exfoliator. It releases in paper-thin curls—hence the common name of paperbark birch. Unusually, the bark of young birch twigs is also interesting: a snappy ebony brown or even black. So in winter, when they have dropped all of their foliage, these trees are interesting top to bottom, stem tips to the ground. Plane trees are another tree that provides a head-to-toe performance when leafless.

 

Trees such as these are not just twofers when it comes to bark. It isn't just that both young and old stems are interesting: The combination of young and old stems is really interesting. Even better, there's a way to concentrate the young stems at the top of the trunk, while also removing them from the trunk, that ramps up the individual performances of young stems and old trunk—and, therefore, harmonizes their duet all the more sweetly.

 

Take a look at the picture below. In the center, the plane tree's trunk abruptly stops, and smooth-barked young stems and branches begin. 

 

Platanus x acerifolia Suttneri 122917 canopy of younger stems 122917 640

 

At the center is the stub and scar where I had sawn through the young trunk a couple of years ago. This enabled vigorous growth of the side branches. Although the branch at ten o'clock is nearly as thick as the trunk, it's still not yet old enough to display exfoliating bark.  

 

Platanus x acerifolia Suttneri 122917 canopy of younger stems 122917 closer 640 

 

Keeping young stems pruned from the length of the trunk emphasizes that the trunk itself is an individual show. Pruning the younger stems at the top of the trunk—but then letting new shoots grow back—results in a more concentrated display of young stems there. It's a conceptual as well as visual treat that radical pruning top to bottom enables the planetree to mount one distinct show of smooth branches and twigs up top, and another distinct show of highly-textured exfoliation on the trunk.  

 

The dead of winter is a great season for pruning most deciduous trees and shrubs. Not only have they shed the foliage that, inevitably, would make it more difficult to see what you're doing but, also, the leafless branches are somewhat lighter without their leaves—as are the plant's woody portions themselves. They have decreased their water content as part of becoming dormant, because a reduced water content makes them less susceptible to damage from freezing. So, even the leafless woody portions I'd be pruning from this planetree will be somewhat lighter now, too.

 

What was I waiting for? After trimming off all the trunk's lower stems, I had great access to the large branches at the top—the tree's entire canopy.

 

Platanus x acerifolia Suttneri 010718 before pollarding 640

 

Folding saws can sever limbs four and even five inches thick, so even the monster at ten o'clock wasn't a problem.

 

Platanus x acerifolia Suttneri 010718 before with saw 640

 

Five minutes later, the pruning was complete.

 

Platanus x acerifolia Suttneri 010718 after with hand saw 640

 

I'll revisit this tree in spring, as the profuse new shoots emerge from all over what at the moment certainly looks like a ravaged terrain. Planetrees are classic and highly cooperative subjects for pruning that's as severe as this; the resultant head of new stems will be dense, round, and comparatively compact. Come next winter, when those young stems shed their leaves, the "bark duet" of the crunchy, patchy trunk with the canopy's horde of smooth young stems should be beautiful.

 

 

Here's a look at the elegant variegated foliage of Suttner's London planetree, as well as the full how-to-grow-it table.

 

 
 
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