Luke Werner from Davey's North Pittsburgh shares his top favorite trees and shrubs that provide great winter interest, such as exfoliating bark, fruit color and unique branch structures.
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Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Company's podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each episode showcases one of Davey's certified arborists sharing advice with everyone about caring for your trees and landscapes.
We'll talk about everything from introduced pests, seasonal tree care, deer damage, how to make your trees thrive, and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more because here at the Talking Trees podcast, we know trees are the answer.
Before we get started today since this episode posts on Veterans Day, we want to send out our heartfelt thanks to all those that have served in the military to protect our freedoms. If you can, please listen to an earlier Talking Trees podcast. It's about a program called Saluting Branches.
The Davey Tree Expert volunteer with other arborists to honor American servicemen and women by organizing voluntary tree and landscape care at national veteran cemeteries. All right, let's get started with today's episode.
I'm joined this week by Luke Werner. He's a District Manager for the Davey Tree Expert Company in North Pittsburgh, and so we know each other pretty well. We've talked many times and today we're talking all about trees and shrubs with winter interest because it is still time here in the east to plant.
Luke, welcome to the show. What were you thinking when you first heard winter interest, as far as trees and shrubs go?
Luke Werner: I got excited. I love taking care of trees. I love planting new plants, everybody thinks to remove trees, but it's nice to get excited about putting some new plants in. With that now, everybody seems to, "Oh, I want something that flowers, I want something that looks nice in the spring." That's great too, but there's so many other ways to get beauty out of plants.
In the Pittsburgh area when everything is wet and gray, and dark and dreary in the winter, it's nice to have some plants that still offer some interest or something to look at. There's a lot of different things, but that's what gets me excited, is being able to put things that extend the enjoyment you can get out of plants.
Doug: When you're thinking about that, you want to start with trees?
Luke: Yes, we can do that.
Doug: What are we talking, bark, evergreen, berries? What are you thinking?
Luke: It's a few different categories. When I think of winter interest, the first thing I always think of the bark or the exfoliating bark, because there are no leaves. There's a handful of trees, kousa dogwood, Japanese stewartia, paperbark maple, and a couple of birch trees, whether it's a paperbark or river bark-- I'm sorry, river birch.
Doug: You mentioned one of my favorites, which is the stewartia. Not only-- I know we're talking winter interest, but whenever I hear stewartia, I got to go there. Talk about that tree for our climate in the east here. Start with the shape, the size, the flowers, and then what we're going to talk about today, the winter interest, what is the winter interest of it?
Luke: I usually think of the bark when I think of Japanese stewartia. I think it was primarily when I worked in the field for Davey, I remember going into a backyard and seeing this tree and I'm like, "What is this tree?" I hadn't been exposed to it with more of a forestry background to so many the different cultivars.
It can be a multi-stem or they can have a couple of different forms. Some are more single stem, some are multi-stem at a certain point. They're an ornamental tree. They're smaller in size. The flowers are just-- they're are beautiful. They have the orange and white and they almost look fake to me sometimes because they're so vibrant in their color. They're so perfect that they just stand out in the landscape.
Going into winter that bark, when we say exfoliating, meaning it can peel off or it comes off in pieces. With the kousa dogwood and the Japanese stewartia, they almost give like a camouflage pattern or shape. They'll have different contrasts between the whites or the grays. It is, yes, certainly a stunning tree. It's not one that you see on every property either.
Doug: For that stewartia, I put one in a couple of years ago and I was so thrilled to see the blooms in early summer. It's a surprise when you first put a tree in-- I knew what it was going to do, but when was it going to do it? When would it be mature enough to put those buds on, but now as soon as those leaves drop, I'm looking forward to seeing how that bark starts to mature also? What else is that on your list?
Luke: Kousa dogwood was one for the exfoliating bark. We don't have to go into that one in great detail. The barks similar to the stewartia. If it's maybe something that you're not great with the care plants, the kousa dogwood it's probably a little harder than I've seen than the stewartias.
Doug: How long on a kousa dogwood do those red berries persist, when are they gone?
Luke: I was just at a property the other day and most of them were dropping off, and the client was-- it was in a poor spot. It was hanging over the sidewalk and they can make quite a mess. Of course, the animals, the squirrels, the raccoons, they all come in and get them.
His were starting to fall off right now, but the paperbark maple is another one with the exfoliating bark, has a lightish brown peely bark like a river birch-- just a little bit smaller. Of course, everybody knows about the white birch or the paper birch that they think of.
That's a category I have with more bark interest on trees. Another category would be fruit that is persistent and stays on the plant throughout the winter. Properly named, the Winter King hawthorn is one. They have a nice small red berries that stay on the plant as well as a Sugar Tyme crabapple.
Doug: For the hawthorn, when I talk to arborist, the hawthorn comes up a lot, but I just don't know a lot about it. Is it something we see in a lot of landscapes, hawthorns?
Luke: Yes, it's an ornamental-- The common ornamental that you see most often is thornless. The Winter King does have long one-inch pretty violent-looking thorns on it. That does scare some people away because you have to be cautious about that. Are there low limbs that are at head heights? Are they hanging over a patio, or over a lawn area where you could walk into it?
They're great in the right spot. I planted one for a client and it was right outside her kitchen window in a landscape bed. She loves it because in the winter, the fruits on there, the birds come and get the fruit. She's able to enjoy that early winter time again with that tree.
Doug: I love that part of it where you get to watch the birds strip the tree at a certain point. You mentioned the crabapple, and it takes a couple of frosts or maybe freezes to soften up those crabapples, and then the birds feast on the tree, right?
Luke: Yes. We plant a lot of the crabapples in our area. They do really well. They have a nice spring flowers, too. I think it's also that people are more comfortable with a crabapple because they know it.
If I have the opportunity to let them know about some other options that you don't see everywhere, maybe a little bit disease resistant like the hawthorn over the crabapple, then I certainly like to go that route.
Doug: In my case, the team from your office actually has worked on a crabapple for me. I had a pine tree that was behind it, drop on it and it looked awful. The arborist looked at it and I just-- this is a crabapple that's right outside my kitchen window, and I've watched it for 20 years mature, and I was hoping that they could save it. They did, they trimmed it up and said, "Let's see, let's see".
That's what I love about working with a good arborist is they understand the affection that a homeowner has for a tree, and they did everything they could to save this tree. Now it's doing its thing, but crabapples and especially, this older variety of crabapple, on a wet year, it defoliates.
Luke: Yes, I have two at my house and they do the same thing. Weather dependent in the spring if I don't get it treated for apple scab, it ultimately drops all its leaves in the middle of the year, but it's so weather dependent.
Doug: Do you treat your trees? Because I really don't treat mine, and should I be? Should I give it some fungal treatment early in the season so I don't lose the leaves?
Luke: Yes. This year, it was just a glitch on my part that I didn't have a work order created, but most every other year, I do have my crabapples treated for apple scab. It's just a few foliar applications in the early spring as the leaves are developing, and it's a very responsive treatment.
It's one of those treatments that you don't always get with trees. You fertilize a tree. We all know it's good. We all know it's great for the plant, but a lot of times the homeowners don't see that immediate response. With the leaf disease applications, it's something that they notice right off the bat. Those leaves, you're protecting them. They stay on the tree all year. Usually have better flowers next spring. It's something that they can see relatively quickly.
Doug: What else is on your list as far as fruit goes?
Luke: Those are the two that popped into my mind for fruit. Another category I had was just branching structure, just the aesthetics of the plants in the winter. There's a lot of Japanese maples around here. When they're properly pruned-- There are so many different types. They have very unique shapes, so they can offer a lot of interest in the winter just in their form and structure.
Then, one that's more off the wall is Harry Lauder's Walking Stick or a filbert, whatever you would prefer, but they're just--
Doug: What's the other name for Harry Lauder's Walking Stick?
Luke: People call it filbert.
Doug: Okay. Good. Let's go back to the Japanese maple. When is the right time to be pruning a Japanese maple? I get that question a lot, and I don't know the answer.
Luke: I like to do it after the spring flush. They're putting out a lot of energy into that growth, that leaf formation. Once that new growth hardens off in the summer, the liquid in the tree slows down. I like to prune it then or in the dormant season, of course, it's fine for everything.
Doug: You bring up pruning. For many homeowners, pruning is one of those very, very difficult things to figure out the right way to do it. Are there any basic rules about pruning? When I talk to an arborist about this all the time, to me, it's a combination of art and science. I don't know if you see it that way because not every arborist does.
When people ask me about pruning, I just tell them, "First off, don't take off too much, and take your time." Sometimes people just go in there and they hack things to pieces and it's like, "Ugh." What's funny, actually, is that right outside my dentists' window, so every six months, I see this really, terribly pruned crabapple. Every six months, I'm complaining to the dentist because he does it himself. It's done completely wrong.
Luke: I would agree that there is an art and science to it. Especially when you're looking at ornamentals, or pruning around buildings, things like that. Certainly, anybody can get a chainsaw, or a pull clip, or these things and just clear the [unintelligible 00:14:00]. They clear it by three feet no matter what, all the way around it.
That's where your art comes into play, is being able to make those cuts that aren't overly noticeable, still keep the tree in an aesthetically pleasing form. The science aspect is more of the dead boarding, the elevation, a side of it that's making the proper cuts. I definitely think there's a mix between the two.
When you talk about intimidation from the homeowner, I think I see a lot of poor pruning on Japanese maples that people over prune them, over fin them. It's a very thin-barked plant. They're very susceptible to sunscald which is essentially sunburn on the tops of the branches where the sun hits, and they're very susceptible to that over the winter when they don't have the leaf cover protecting it.
Thinning it out. Slightly not doing too much with Japanese maples. Oftentimes, for reduction or proper pruning, sometimes it can take a few years to get it to where you want it to be.
Doug: Take your time and certainly don't go up into that tree. If you need to get up on a ladder, have a certified arborist do it. Now, the Harry Lauder's Walking Stick. Explain to people what that thing looks like because it's a cool-looking plant.
Luke: Yes. Oh, my goodness. I don't even know some of the horrors you think to explore. It's just an erratic growth. If you put an earthworm in your hand, and it was swarming all around, every shape that worm took the Harry Lauder's Walking Stick has limbs that are shaped like that. It's just an erratic pattern of growth. You almost have to look it up online to get an actual visualization of it.
Doug: I wouldn't know how to explain it either. How about Medusa maybe? [crosstalk]
Luke: Exactly. Yes.
Doug: I don't know how to explain it. How often do you see them in the landscape, and how often do you put them in the landscape? Because they are a star in the winter.
Luke: I actually haven't installed any, but I've taken care of a bunch. My great-grandfather had one at his house. I remember every time he would deadwood it in the winter, he would lay or throw the deadwood down underneath of it. Over the course of 30 years or so, it created this very unique mulch underneath where they decayed as well, but it was just very-- I don't know how to explain it really, but it was almost stunning.
That tree didn't have leaves. It was like all of the erratic growth in the crown, and you look in the ground and this landscape bed underneath of it was covered in years of pruned out deadwood that looked the same. It was pretty unique.
Doug: That's pretty cool. How did you get into this, working with trees?
Luke: I always like to hunt and fish, and be outside. I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I went and got an associates in Park and Recreation. Took one forestry 101 class in getting that associate's and it was the first time I really enjoyed going to class, learning, and really asking questions.
Did a quick search online of some forestry schools. Penn State, WVU, Syracuse, all popped up around here in Pittsburgh, where I'm originally from. Majority of my family went to Penn State, and I think I had enough of it. I ended up going to WVU and got my bachelor's in forestry down there, and then ended up pursuing the urban forestry route in Pittsburgh because my wife had a job here in the city.
There's not too much timber marking or managing large tracts of timber in the city, but we managed properties. Both positions are managing properties. It's just whether you manage a hundred acres, or one acre, or four trees, or 4,000 trees.
Doug: Your team is managing my four acres, and I am so glad to have them here because, again, I mention this almost every time when I talk to an arborist. I live in this oak forest with oak wilt, and so I need a great arborist to come once or twice a year and help me. They'll be coming as soon as the leaves are off the oaks [laughs].
They will descend on my property to cut this and cut that. Is there any other category for winter interest?
Luke: I think they cover just a couple of other things in trees. One other one that I do like are the evergreens, things that are green all year. Add some color in the winter. There's numerous array of ornamental shrubs and small evergreen trees you can choose from.
One I like is the Edith Bogue magnolia. It is a northern hardy southern magnolia. It's a pretty cool plant, and they're available locally as well. It just looks like a southern magnolia that is cold tolerant for our hardiness zone, which is nice.
Doug: Tell me about it as far as where you would cite it and how big that would get because that's pretty exciting for a northern gardener to think that they could have something looking like that southern magnolia. There's nothing like those glossy.
Doug: The ones that I see to do the best in full sun. I just started seeing them. We don't see a lot of really large ones. It's just a plant that I think was just starting to catch on. The largest one I've seen, I don't know, is maybe 15 feet.
Doug: I was just at the nursery the other day and I didn't take a close look at it, and I bet you it's the tree you're talking about. I walked by and I said, "Wow, Southern magnolia." I should have looked at it closer, but the ones in the nursery were probably eight-foot, pretty decent-sized tree. I don't have the full sun, but I would love to have one in the landscape and see what it would do eventually.
Luke: Then as far as shrubs go, a couple of my favorites would be witch-hazel and winterberry.
Doug: Talk about witch-hazel, because that's one of my favorites. I have one called Diana with red flowers. I see them in the wild blooming of all sorts of different times. There must be lots of different cultivars. In my landscape, that's the first thing to bloom.
Luke: Yes. I have one at my house. It is more of a tree form. It's a grafted plant, so mine goes up a few feet, has a few feet worth of a stem, and then it sprouts out into a very multi-stemmed plant, but it throws off. Mine has a yellow flower. It has fingers. If you take your hand and put it upward and extend your fingers, that's how the flowers look. They're thin twisting yellow-type pedals.
Like you said, you can get different cultivars that have different colors. It's a great plant. There's medicinal uses for the plant. It's indigenous to the area. There's a lot of good things going for the witch-hazel. You can get one for whatever site you have on those.
Doug: Pretty easy to grow, I think. Right?
Luke: Yes. It's not difficult. I know the one I put in, although I'm an arborist, I don't always give my plants the best attention at home. I try to pick the ones that maybe require the least attention. I did put that witch-hazel in with my daughter on Arbor Day when she was one years old. I like to have something like that on the property to always try to plant one with her every year. That's not just the witch-hazel, but different trees.
Doug: That's really cool. Then for anybody who happens to be visiting Pittsburgh in the winter, there are a huge stand of winterberries in front of our Phipps Conservatory. Talk about that winterberry, you need a male and a female, right? Is that how it has to make the berry?
Luke: Definitely like a holly. When you have certain hollies like that, a lot of the females will have the persistent fruit on them, nice red berries, but they're beautiful in the winter. When they drop their foliage, it's just the whole bush. Each stem just looks totally filled up with red berries.
Then when you get a nice snowfall on top of them, the contrast between the red berries, the white snow, they're usually up against. It seems like a darker foundation. It fits some of that stonework, things like that. It's absolutely stunning.
Doug: Luke, I'm going to leave it right there. There's a lot of great ideas there for homeowners. I wish I could find a place for that magnolia you're talking about. I think I'm going to have to poke around the landscape and look for a spot. Maybe where one of those oak trees fell down.
Luke: There you go. That's a big canopy that's opening up a big area.
Doug: All right, Luke. Thanks again for your time.
Luke: No, not a problem, Doug. It was a pleasure.
Doug: Boy, I've got to find a place for one of those magnolias Luke was talking about. Now, tune in every Thursday to the Talking Trees podcast from the Davey Tree Expert Company. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Do me a favor and subscribe to the podcast. We're having so much fun and learning, too.
Next week for our special Thanksgiving show, we'll talk all about the reasons we're thankful for trees. As always, we'd like to remind you on the Talking Trees podcast, trees are the answer.