The Power of Trees

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Cupressus Sempervirens, Mediterranean Cypress

There are plenty of trees for the small garden that shine brightest in winter. The best ones grow reflective surfaces on the underleaves: silver, white or even gold. When the sun is low and the wind is stirring, the effect is nothing short of dazzling.

A favorite is the silver-leaf oak (Quercus hypoleucoides). The three-inch evergreen leaves, though leathery and green on top, have a stunningly shiny underbelly. Growing to only 20 or 30 feet, it fits in small gardens and is tolerant of both drought and mucky, clay soil.

Gum and olive trees have also become fashionable in recent years. You’ll need to make careful choices for frost tolerance and size, but they do offer excellent leaf and bark color for winter. Snow gum varieties are particularly good (e.g., Eucalyptus pauciflora subsp. niphophila), but like fine wines, each should be enjoyed for its individual qualities. All have bluish leaves, which offer a cool-hued ambience in summer, yet warm their surroundings when the winter light glazes their peeling white bark, showing patches of salmon, olive and tan.

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Olea Europaea, ‘Picual’ Olive Tree

Olive trees are slower growing, but a few thousand years of cultivation have proven their worth. (Most produce olives quite well, but they need a lot of processing to make them martini-ready.) It’s a tree that even the brownest thumb can love; it prefers rocky soil, full sun and summer drought. But Picual olive (Olea europaea ‘Picual’) can grow to 15 feet in about 10 years here, and displays its leaves upward in an almost imbricate pattern. Leave the fruit alone, and the greenish-black olives will provide a stunning visual contrast through the winter.

Platt’s ideas are still at work at her family estate, Bishop’s Close. Like other Victorian gardeners who turned Portland into an early horticultural center, her father, Peter Kerr, quickly learned the colors, textures and aromas warmer winters can produce—and how much more beautiful the rain can be when paired with a blooming camellia.