In Praise of Trees

Silver Birch. Betula pendula

Think of a leafy canopy on hot summer days. How about winter sun filtering through your leafless, silver-branched betula pendula (silver birch).

Trees (and shrubs) are essential to a basic garden outline and structure, giving height and maturity. A garden jam-packed full of roses, flowering perennials and annuals is a wonderful sight in spring, but it won’t be so appealing in the middle of winter unless it has a solid framework of trees.

On the other hand, a garden planted entirely in trees and shrubs can look good for twelve months of the year. A recent visit to an Ōtaki Gorge property reminded me of this. The woodland garden with its meandering paths through soon to flower rhododendrons was firmly grounded by a variety of exotic and native trees. As well as providing a background setting for less permanent plants, trees put on a seasonal show of their own.

Some of the best displays of flowers, fruit and berries, or autumn foliage come from trees.

Prunus Camanulala
Prunus Camanulala

To experience a spring without the gorgeous pink or white blossom of the shapely prunus (flowering cherry) is like having a Christmas without coloured lights.

Deciduous trees are great for letting the sun through in winter, but the shedding leaves in autumn can be a disadvantage if they land in the guttering. Still, they are useful for the compost heap, and provide brilliant colours in the autumn.

Acer Palmatum Emperor
Acer Palmatum Emperor

The largest of the Japanese maples, Acer palmatum, is still small enough for the average garden and has something special to offer every season: red new growth in spring, cool, soft-green foliage in summer, and flaming autumn tones. In winter its delicate airy appearance is enhanced by attractive branch patterns.

Japanese maples must have shelter from hot, dry winds (they are not happy in a coastal environment). They like a cool, deep, well-drained soil, with plenty of humus. Ornamental blossom trees are grown mainly for their glorious winter or spring flowers, but some also produce vivid autumn colour.

The prunus “Shirotae” is a nicely shaped tree with wide, spreading branches. It looks brilliant in mid-spring when covered in drooping clusters of large, frilled snowy-white, fragrant flowers. It also has good autumn colour.

Purple-leaved cherry blossom
Purple-leaved cherry blossom

If you like rich colours try prunus camanulata “Felix Jury”. The tree has a profusion of large, deep carmine-red flowers in early spring. Or go for the Purple Leaf Cherry, prunus cerasifera “Nigra”. The dark purple foliage persists through spring, summer and autumn. The small pink flowers in spring are a bonus. Evergreen trees do drop leaves — in fact they are likely to do it all year round. This can actually be more annoying than a one season deluge. They are the best choice when year-round privacy or shelter is required, but they create drier, more intense shade than deciduous trees.

Echinus Molle California Pepper
Echinus Molle California Pepper

I have always loved the Pepper Tree (schinus molle). It looks like a willow tree at first glance, but is much more beautiful. It grows quickly in warm climates, and with age develops into a gracefully weeping tree with soft, feathery foliage and lovely gnarled branches. It makes an attractive shade tree, letting through enough light so that lawn and groundcover plants can be grown underneath.

Once you’ve got it established, it will stand up to drought, wet conditions and light frost.

A tree that has been on my “want list” for awhile is Michelia doltsopa “Silver Cloud”. Late winter or early spring sees it covered with masses of creamy-white, magnolia-like, fragrant blooms. All year round it is a shapely, upright tree with large, dark green leaves. Silver Cloud is my “want” because I am impatient — it begins flowering at a younger age than other species.

From the hundreds of kinds of trees available, try to choose those which suit your climate, situation and soil. And remember to check form, height and shape. This will determine their place in the garden, either as a single specimen or in groups. Never rush into planting a tree — consider neighbours, foundations, paths and driveways, drains and any power lines.

Well-placed trees seem to anchor a house into its surroundings, enhancing street appeal and framing garden views. They provide privacy, and form a protective barrier against winds, particularly in coastal and exposed areas.

Trees attract birds and other wildlife to the garden, screen off unsightly views and lessen traffic noise. They have a special place in our landscaping.