Take a Bough

Show-stopping trees can be the stars of your garden, from a pink-flowering Japanese apricot to the flamboyant crape myrtle.
Clockwise, from upper left, Stewartia, a member of the camelia amd franklinia family. Crape myrtle, flamboyant from late July through September. Prunus mume, a relative of the flowering cherry. Abbey Jane Brody Photos

    The tornado that tore through my neighborhood in Springs last July took down two of the largest oaks in my garden. At first there was shock and disbelief: My garden will never be the same!  Before the week was out, however, I was filled with excitement at the opportunity to replace them with trees that had recently captured my imagination.

    The first tree was easy to replace. I had stumbled upon a multi-trunk tree with brilliant white-variegated leaves in a shady corner of Dennis Schrader and Bill Smith’s garden in Mattituck. Its image stuck in my mind even though I thought there would never be space for it in my overplanted garden. I was surprised to find that this is a variant called Goshiki of the vase-shape street tree Zelkova serrata that is grown on Main Street in East Hampton as a substitute for American elms.

    It took longer to decide on the second. I had spent part of last June in Normandy, which turns out to be a treasure trove of world-class gardens and exceptional plants. A couple of snake-bark maples, Red Flamingo and Silver Cardinal, caught my eye, but they have not yet made it to our shores. Adam Wheeler of Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, Conn., put me onto a near-relation, Acer x conspicuum Phoenix. During the winter its bark is accurately described as “blindingly bright, lipstick red.”

    Phoenix delighted me and won accolades from visitors during the long, bleak, and snowy winter. It is a good alternative to the less vividly colored, classic coral bark maple, Acer palmatum Sango-kaku. A relatively small tree, it will be a good host for a colorful clematis during the summer.

    The moral of this story is to make every centimeter of space in your garden count, using the most beautiful trees and in their best forms.  Make a wish list of trees, a list that taken together would extend beauty and interest in your garden throughout the year. The choices can be subject to change from one moment to the next. The fact is that my choices for this article, about ornamental trees to recommend, have changed since I first began thinking about it, and may even change again before I’m finished.

    Always at the top of my list is the Japanese ornamental apricot, Prunus mume, a relative of the flowering cherry. To my mind it is a far better choice. This year my pink-flowered form, Peggy Clarke, gave the garden its first burst of color in mid-March. Most years it begins flowering during a warm spell in late January or February. The buds open sequentially over a long period and are cold hardy, so flowering is not damaged by bad weather. And on warm, sunny days the air is filled with its perfume.

    Prunus mume can bloom anywhere from four to six weeks. There are hundreds of choices in Japan, fewer here, in colors from white through pinks to red. There is even a weeping form. Why settle for a cherry, which flowers fleetingly and is a disease magnet? 

   Another favorite, in other people’s yards or public gardens, is the magnolia. Late hard frosts can turn the bloom of early-flowering magnolias to mush, ruining the seasonal display. There is a host of gorgeous magnolias throughout the grounds at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton. Plan a visit soon. The bloom time of fragrant, summer-flowering magnolias, on the other hand,  extends into July. Two, M. sieboldii and M. wilsonii, do best in partial shade. Magnolia x wiesneri, rarest of the group, is difficult to propagate. The flowers of the three are very similar, especially to the layman: creamy-white, saucer-shape petals with a prominent central cone covered with bright red stamens.

   I first became aware of M. x wiesneri (at the time called M. x watsonii) on a visit to Lionel Rothschild’s azalea garden, Exbury, in southern England. I think it was the fragrance that stopped me and drew my eyes upward. It was love at first sight.

    M. sieboldii is the easiest to locate and does very well in East Hampton. My tree has semi-double flowers. It begins flowering in May and continues intermittently through the summer. Its large red fruits are spectacular.

    Stewartia is a member of the same family as camellia and franklinia, and has similar white flowers with prominent yellow anthers that bloom in June and early July. Stewartia gives value year round: In addition to summer flowers, it has vivid scarlet and orange autumn foliage and exfoliating bark in shades of buff, deep brown, gray, and mauve. The most popular is S. pseudocamellia, which has a graceful shape and does well in partial shade. The mountain stewartia, S. monodelpha, has mahogany-colored bark with smaller flowers; when the low sun hits the bark it glows like molten metal. The stewartia at LongHouse self-seed and often you can find seedlings for sale at the gate.

    I can’t imagine having a garden on the East End without at least one crape myrtle. Like the stewartia, but more flamboyant, it offers something for every season: bountiful flowers from late July through September and even October, brilliant autumn foliage, and exfoliating bark on multi-trunk trees that is spectacular in winter.

    Thanks to the hybridizing work of  Don Egolf at the United States National Arboretum, more than 20 hardy crape myrtles have been released (identified by their Indian names), ranging from dwarfs (2 to 31/2’) to semi-dwarf, intermediate, and trees (to 33’), and in color from white, to pink, lavender, and red.

    The standout colors of the crape myrtle can define the garden so selection is highly personal. A very dramatic gardener in Sag Harbor years ago ringed his property with trees with sizzling red flowers. A totally different mood is seen at a path (named for me) at LongHouse, where more than 20 white-flowered, mahogany bark trees of Natchez, underplanted with boxwood, can be seen. At dusk in August as the white fades into blackness, the experience is ethereal.

    Lagerstroemia fauriei Townhouse has perhaps the darkest bark of all, and a batch of newer crape myrtles, Pink Velour, Dynamite, White Chocolate, are proving hardy and popular. Some of the newer varieties are compact and would look good in containers.

    One of the most gratifying aspects of horticulture and gardening is that no matter how long you have been involved, there are always new and exciting discoveries to be made. A couple of years ago in September, I visited the Rosenberg garden in Water Mill, the first Oehme van Sweden garden on Long Island, and came to a squealing halt before a tree with plumes of what I took to be red flowers. What was it?  A complete mystery.

    In fact, they were not flowers. Evodia daniellii (now more often called Tetradium daniellii) has masses of white flowers in July and August. The showy red are the split capsules that open as the seeds ripen. Wolfgang Oehme, who has worked with the Rosenbergs since the garden’s installation about 30 years ago, is one of the top plantsmen in the West. He told me he had brought the Rosenbergs’ tree into the United States as a seedling in his pocket. We should all have friends like Wolfgang.

    If you scout mail-order nurseries on the Internet, you can most likely find one. Or order from the Hardy Plant Society/Mid-Atlantic Group’s seed exchange. It is easy to germinate and fast growing.

    Plants with purple leaves generally excite plant lovers. The Canadian redbud, Cercis canadensis Forest Pansy, created a sensation but was short-lived. A new purple-leaved redbud, said to be stronger and healthier, has recently been introduced as Merlot. For those who love weeping trees, a new redbud based on Forest Pansy, called Ruby Falls, was released last year, and one is at LongHouse.

    For your long-term wish list, take note of Styrax japonica Purple Dress. Found in France, it, too, has purple leaves. It is available in the Netherlands and England; I believe it is being propagated at Broken Arrow, but is not yet available. It literally leaped out at me in the various gardens in Normandy that I visited.

    Catastrophic events in the garden may be nature’s way of prodding us on. Last July’s tornado didn’t enable me to make lemonade from lemons; it turned out to be champagne.