Compared to the convivial leaf-peeping of fall and the blossom daze of spring, winter walks feel more personal, more private. Snow muffles the sound of tires on the streets. Voices are muted beneath scarves. Yet snow, when it happens, focuses the eyes. The fox that might have slipped by unnoticed in fall, ducking into the cover of russet leaves, becomes a highlighter spot on the landscape. At the Arnold Arboretum, the white ground becomes a blank page where individual trees and shrubs scrawl their signatures—the pattern of bark and twigs as distinct as cursive loops and dots. Whereas summer is a world of green on green (monochrome with blasts of color), the snow-covered landscape is defined by contrast.
On a recent afternoon, I found my way into the Explorers Garden on Bussey Hill. Footprints traced their way down the snowy path, but the garden was as hushed as a museum gallery. I followed the curve of the path, admiring the long, clear view through the oak collection to Valley Road. At the back of the garden, I turned from the downhill vista, suddenly caught by the sculptural form of our old Japanese stewartias (Stewartia pseudocamellia, accession 11440*A and 11440*B), grown from seed Ernest Henry Wilson collected in South Korea in 1917. I’ve seen the plants countless times before, but in the winter light and with the path to myself, the encounter had the same charge as spotting, say, a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Not a single leaf remained on the trees, and the afternoon sun shot through the canopy, spotlighting the bark, which exfoliates in smooth splotches to reveal a paint-by-numbers map of dark gray and burnished copper.
Of course, as any birdwatcher would tell you, part of the thrill of spotting a snowy owl perched overhead—let alone with wings outspread and flying slow—is due to the luck of being in the right place (and looking in the right direction) when the bird is passing through town, midway on migration. While the stewartias never move, the bark does transform throughout the year, as the darkest gray patches slough off and the orange sections fade. I couldn’t help suspecting that this was part of the appeal at this midwinter moment—the preponderance of freshly exposed orange perhaps stronger now than in the fall. In many cases, these bark underlayers have photosynthetic capacity, which would be more advantageous in the leafless months of winter.
Wilson collected the seed for these two Arboretum stewartias at the foot of Mount Jirisan, the second highest peak in South Korea. “The weather was most wintery & I am feeling very much fatigued,” he wrote to Charles Sprague Sargent, the director of the Arboretum, after that portion of the collecting trip. “On the high peaks snow lay in quantity & on two occasions we were overtaken by severe storms of snow, sleet & rain. The winter appears to have set in abnormally early in the mountain districts.” In a photograph Wilson took of a stewartia on the day the seed collection was made (perhaps from the same tree), the ground appears snowless, but the trunk of the tree gleams in the slanting and shadowy light, the splotchy bark vivid, even in grayscale. Somehow, as I looked at his photograph—my feet still warming and drying from snow that had seeped through my boots—it felt appropriate to know that Wilson had encountered the tree in a similar state.
As regulars at the Arboretum know, however, it’s not just bark that causes pause with a Japanese stewartia. In early summer, the flowers are just as likely to inspire the feeling of right-place-right-time giddiness. The five white petals are as delicate as lepidopteran wings, and, when they fall to the ground—with the yellow stamens still attached in the center—it looks as though they could flit away the second your back is turned. This year, Arboretum members who contribute at the Sustaining Level or above can receive a Japanese stewartia through the Arbor Day Seedling Program. Whether planning for flowers, bark, or the vibrant flame of fall color, anyone planting a stewartia should position it with the same care that lovebirds choreograph a wedding—with all the requisite (and somehow not incongruous) pomp and whimsy. Find a location (even in moderate shade) where the tree can age with elegance, where it can surprise you on your walk.