Native Winter Interest Trees (part 1)
Collin McMichael, Education Coordinator
Here in Central Texas, we may not get the extreme winters felt more often in other parts of the country,
but we can still enjoy our wintery landscape despite the balmy temperatures! Correct tree selection for
your site can lead to better seasonal enjoyment, especially if trees are used to highlight seasonal
progressions either through contrast or through seasonally iconic states. I personally believe that there
is a tree that can be the dominant focus of your garden for each season, and some of these trees are
even showstoppers in more than one time of year! This list, however, will be focusing specifically on
those native trees that show off the best during our drearier months.
Of course, a “winter tree list” has to start with evergreens. Maybe it’s because so many people truly
hate winter that they want to pretend it’s summer year-round, or maybe that’s just me projecting.
Regardless, our frigid, 70-degree days and ample sunshine make for a lot of native species that retain
leaf cover year-round. Some notable examples of these would of course be the live oak and closely
related Monterrey oak, but those are not as fun to talk about as others. Similarly, you all know what a
Texas Mountain Laurel is, so I will not be talking about its peppery, winter leaves or its grape-scented,
spring majesty. Instead, I will be focusing my energy on less commonly planted species like a Carolina
cherry laurel or an anacua if you are looking for the coarser texture and shape of a broadleaved tree. If
your garden design calls for the fine or ferny texture of a conifer, a Montezuma cypress or Arizona
cypress may be more your speed.
The Carolina cherry laurel, while not technically native to Central Texas, is naturally spreading this
direction from its East Texas confines. It is a densely foliated tree that works well as a screening hedge.
Its berries attract large numbers of birds too! Unfortunately, wetter winters can see an outbreak of
“shot-hole” fungus on the leaves, especially on more compact or densely branched cultivars, though the
tree usually outgrows this fungus by the following spring. Even with the occasional pest, Its glossy green
foliage remains a welcome reminder of lusher times in the darkest days.
The anacua, one of our Sapling Days species this year, has similarly colored leaves and is an exceptionally
tough Central Texas native, though they can be hard to find in nature as far north as Austin. Regardless,
with our warming climate we can expect anacua to do quite well within our urban heat island. Its
sandpapery leaves can drop in extreme cold, but they usually don’t. These trees make mannerly
mounds of dark green foliage that easily blocks the sightlines of not-uninterested neighbors. Anacua
can also be a feature of a tactile garden experience as its one of the few trees with highly textured
leaves leading to its alternate common name, the “sandpaper tree.”
Coarse textures and broadleaves end once you enter the conifers in favor of needles, scales, and finer
things. One such fine texture belongs to the ferny foliage of the Montezuma cypress, which is native to
Texas, but only the extreme southern tip of Big Bend. This tree greatly resembles its sister species, the
bald cypress, in all ways besides a lack of winter nudity, an inability to produce lawn-mower-destroying
knees, and a refusal to acknowledge any sort of “need for water” that so many other trees complain
about during drought. Oddly enough, these are also the traits that make it a much more desirable tree
for Central Texas than the bald cypress, which in our area finds itself restricted to creeks and Home
Depot parking lots. Massive cold snaps have been known to cause leaves to change colors on
Montezumas to a rich wine-purple, but the leaves are usually retained until the following spring.
The Arizona cypress, which is strangely in no way related to the bald or Montezuma cypresses other
than similarly producing cones, is another strikingly beautiful tree for our area. Native to west Texas and
Arizona, this drought adapted tree can be seen planted along roadways and used as screens all around
town. Cultivars of this species have been produced with everything from bright green to turquoise
foliage, with a few newer cultivars displaying “ice-blue” scale-like leaves. The leaves are held close to
the stems in a similar fashion to those seen in our native junipers or, as many central Texans prefer to
call them, cedars, giving the tree a fine, fuzzy texture.
(To Be Continued…)