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Introduction to Woody Plants

This mostly-woodies Maryland garden looks great all year.
This mostly-woodies Maryland garden looks great all year.

Woody plants are plants that live for more than year and make wood, which, as you know, is the stuff furniture is made of. They have one or more stems as well as branches. These grow in diameter every year as additional wood is made. The mature stem on a tree is called a trunk.

Shrubs (bushes) and trees are woody plants. Woody plants are the big players in your home landscape: your shade, your foundation plants, your screens and hedges, and your majestic specimens. They also serve as backdrops for your seasonal color, the annuals and perennials. Woody plants all flower, but the flowers may not be showy. Except for crape myrtles, roses and a few other summer bloomers, they have short blooming periods.

When planting trees and shrubs, it’s important to consider how big they will get, and how fast they grow. Many a homeowner plants Leyland Cypress as an evergreen screen to either block out the neighbors or hide from the neighbors (or both). But they may not know that Leylands grow up to three feet a year, and may get 70 feet tall. (They usually don’t because they usually don’t live that long, but, they can.)

You also need to consider the ultimate height of foundation plants—usually shrubs—planted along the base or foundation of the house. Most folks don’t want something that will block the windows, or grow up past the gutters, but frequently, that’s what happens.

When planting trees and shrubs, consider their seasonal characteristics. In addition to flowers, woody plants often have attractive fall color, colorful fruits (e.g., berries; not specifically fruit in the edible sense), or attractive bark. And they may or may not be evergreen.

So take the aforementioned crape myrtle: nice flowers—yes, and for a long time. Colorful fruits; no. Fall color; yes, yellow to orange to red. Nice bark in winter? Yes, cinnamon-colored, peeling bark on older specimens. Evergreen—no.

Also consider native plants (loosely defined as plant species that lived here shortly before European colonization). Natives are good for native wildlife. They provide a food source (leaves) for insects which themselves are food for nesting birds, and if they survive long enough, they might turn into butterflies. So, a native: winterberry. Its flowers aren’t showy.  Its fall color is yellow. Its fruits are very colorful, usually red, and they persist through the winter; good food source for squirrels and birds. Winterberry bark is gray and yes, it loses its leaves in the winter.

Each one, winterberry or crape myrtle, deserves a spot in the garden, and both are important landscape plants. It’s up to you (with help) to determine if you have the right growing conditions for them in your garden, and to decide what aspects of the woody plants ornamental characters are the most important to you.

Winterberry hollies at the National Arboretum in January.
Winterberry hollies at the National Arboretum in January.

by Larry Hurley

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

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