The beauty of winter

 

BY JULIE HUTCHINSON

So you don’t think there’s anything to see at Denver Botanic Gardens in the dead of winter?
    Think again.
    If you learn to appreciate the beauty of winter, a visit to the Gardens can be as visually stimulating and as emotionally uplifting in February as it is in August.
    Yes, really.
    I am eternally thankful to the people who passed me as they were leaving the Gardens one February day about five years ago.
    “We’ll have to come back this summer when there’s something to look at,” one of the visitors said to his companion as they passed.
    I resisted the urge to run after them and scold them for being so blind.
    Since then I have become more grateful to those Gardens visitors with each passing winter, as I am ever more aware of the beauty that surrounds me in the frozen, dormant months. Snow or no snow.
    One of my favorite spots in the Gardens this time of year is what’s called the O’Fallon Perennial walk. It’s just past the visitor’s center as you walk out its west doors. Take the first left and you’ll see a long, straight path heading south, banked by wide beds with a feast of perennials that bloom from spring through late fall.
    To the unknowing eye, this stretch might look in winter like a long row of dead plants. But look again and you’ll suddenly notice the beauty of the seedpods and dried flowers of the late-season bloomers still standing, their muted colors and interesting textures as beautiful as fresh blossoms in the peak of the season. The dried foliage displays its own special beauty with its palate of browns and purples, and textures ranging from soft to spiky.
    This setting also offers gardeners lessons in structure and placement. Evergreens and shrubs that melt into the background in the height of the blooming season suddenly take on new roles in winter, moving from supporting players to main characters. It is in locations like this where gardeners learn to appreciate the real beauty and value of evergreens, the only real green in the winter landscape.
    And when all of this is dusted with snow, a whole new picture emerges.
    Moving southward on the perennial walk you will emerge into the Schlessman Plaza & Fragrance Garden and, just beyond, the Romantic Garden. Here in winter a gardener can study the role of physical structures in the garden and appreciate the inherent beauty of trellises, gazebos and walls.
    A number of spectacular viburnum shrubs stand in the plaza. Without their leaves, they take on the role of sculpture. Branches normally hidden by leaves emerge nearly glowing, their neutral color palate suddenly not so neutral.



 

PHOTO BY JEFF HERSCH
THEY COULD ALMOST BE LEFTOVER HOLIDAY ORNAMENTS. The seed pods on this tree near King Soopers at 9th & Corona demonstrate the beauty that can be found once leaves fall for the winter.

 

    This also is a good spot to begin to appreciate the beauty of bark. A tree lilac that stands just to the right of the entry to Schlessman Plaza features beautifully speckled, almost shiny bark. The structure of this tree when visible in winter becomes an important aspect of its beauty as well.
    Pass through the plaza and past the romantic garden toward the herb garden, scripture garden and woodland mosaic. Winter in these gardens gives the boxwoods a chance to show their stuff. The hardworking small evergreens perform as polite backdrops in summer but, in winter, stand out as loud as a choir of sopranos.
    Along this path, as you head west toward the Rock Alpine Garden, don’t miss the towering Kentucky Coffeetree on the right side of the walkway. Without the distraction of its leaves, the tree shows off bark so intricately textured that it could be leather, or pottery. Follow the lines of the bark upward and appreciate the wonder of the elegantly arching branches that float so effortlessly against that blue Colorado sky.
    It’s breathtaking.
    Maybe I like the winter garden better than the summer garden? No bugs and no weeds...
    It’s the Rock Alpine Garden that might be the most interesting spot to visit in winter.
    Here you learn to appreciate the beauty of rocks, any rock, all rocks, from tiny pebbles to lichen-covered boulders. Without the distraction of blooming plants, the rocks form a veritable garden all their own.
    Here also is where you can appreciate the beauty of dormant plants that don’t disappear underground in winter. Notice the textures, the subtle shades of maroon and blue and dark green, the beauty of leaves left behind.
    Looking across the pond toward the Plains Garden, even the most amateur gardener can appreciate the beauty of the winter prairie, its dried grasses and seed pods a giant, gently rolling quilt of texture, color and form.
    Moving north through the Gates Montane Garden another aspect of winter’s beauty emerges: the hush that hangs as noticeable as a cloud, silence that showcases the rustle of dried leaves and the creak of branches and turns it into music.
    The Japanese Garden on the north is all of winter’s lessons in one place: Form, texture and season-long color plus something I think is unique to this setting: shadows. Visit this spot on a sunny, late winter afternoon and you will see it was designed by someone who considered the shadows that would be cast as important as the plants. Incredible.
    Moving east past the Japanese Garden you’ll pass through a row of crabapple trees planted across the path from the shade garden.
    These trees are one of my favorite winter sights here. Most of the crabapples remain on the trees through winter, hanging as shriveled, dark-red jewels as spectacular as Christmas ornaments.
    Across the way, the shade garden in winter features evergreen hellebores with big, leathery green leaves, a sight almost as miraculous as spring itself.
    Oh, and then there’s the Conservatory. In my mind, boring. Anything can grow in a greenhouse. It’s the things that live through the winter and comfort us with their inherent beauty that are the real stars of the Gardens.

Tip of the month: Look for emerging leaves of crocus in the last week of February. The best place to sight them is against a south-facing wall where reflected sun warms the soil early.

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