My love affair with winter bones

Hoar frost turns the elms into magical giants.

Hoar frost turns the elms into magical giants.

I know I’ve said it before, but trees mesmerize me in winter.

Etched black and leafless against the winter sky, their stark limbs appear vulnerable yet strong and impervious to the harsh elements. And when they are rimed with frost, they become magical, captivating to us who only walk upon the earth and not within it.

The king of trees here in Winnipeg is the majestic American elm and they once lined the riverbanks for hundreds of miles, drinking up the water that flowed across the prairie. Before European settlement, there was a wide swath river bottom forest on either side of the rivers — not just American elms, but green ash, basswood and Manitoba maple. Closest to the water, in the lowest of the three level river bottom region, peach-leaf willows and poplars stabilized the banks against the rush of floodwaters that roared down the plain from time to time. On the next level, grew the mighty basswood, the elms, the ash and the maples and, at the highest level stood the oaks, disdainfully keeping their feet dry.

The American elms are gigantic, reaching 80 feet into the air. One survivor in St. Boniface, near Fort Gibralter, is believed to be over 260 years old and is 4 metres (13) feet in diameter and 26 metres (85 feet) tall.


A poplar in Winnipeg on Wellington Crecent.

A poplar in Winnipeg on Wellington Crescent.


Largely cleared for farming, the trees of the river bottom forest continue to grace our city and towns through street plantings.

The river elms are celebrated by the 140,000 of their progeny that offer shade to the homes of Winnipeg. There are whole cathedrals of these trees, creating green arches down home-lined streets (“Leave it to Beaver streets,” says Abigail Mickelthwate,” Alexander’s wife. Alexander Mickelthwate is the maestro of our Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Abigail is from Los Angeles where winter is a gentler friend to trees. Abigail and Alexander and their two kids live on one of these elm-lined streets.)

Manitoba maples are considered a nuisance in some places, but their beautiful and generous boughs reach out to their neighbours in an open and friendly way. They seem to me to be synonymous with the character of the people here in friendly Manitoba: they invite small boys (and girls) to climb them because their branches are often very sweeping and the lowest are close to the ground.

The tidy basswood or linden holds itself primly apart, waiting till June to entice everyone with the sweet scent of its flowers. They are prim only in the city, though. See them at Beaudry Park, just west of Headingley on the south side of the Assiniboine river and marvel at their height — they tower 36 metres (120 feet) and have trunks one to 1.2 metres  (3 to 4 feet) in diameter. The city trees are likely to reach only a  height of about 21 metres (70 feet) tall.

The stately bur oak concentrates its sturdy branches on the sky. We see its standing stolid and stark where they have stood for centuries. Most of Winnipeg’s oaks were here when we moved in.

Oten the poplars we see are weaker hybrid strains with shorter life spans, but here and there we encounter sturdy native stock that have grown tall and stout in spaces that lack competition.

And amongst all these stalwarts of the past, there are the later introductions and the lovely evergreens that add colour to our winters.

Trees sleep, yet live through the cold months, their systems slowed to withstand the weather. Before the ground freezes, roots are very busy storing food in the form of carbohydrates for next spring. Expiration almost stops. Water and sap are infused with tree “antifreeze” in branches and twigs. Already, next year’s leafy dresses are well prepared, tightly folded and protected from the frost by an insoluble coat of resin, stored in twig tips, ready to spring forth in all their majesty when the sun’s warmth calls them forth.

The evergreens offer protection from the bitter winds as they add color to the winter landscape.

The evergreens offer protection from the bitter winds as they add color to the winter landscape.

In winter, evergreens are more black or gray than green. As photosynthesis slows, then all but stops, chlorophyll is reduced, the residue held securely within wax-covered leaves. The stomata on the undersides of the needles close up and expiration becomes minimal. Evergreens often carry, patiently and without complaint, a heavy burden of snow throughout the long winter months, even as they provide shelter for shivering birds and protection for our houses against bitter winds. But they themselves can be at risk from dehydration; especially nearing spring when the sun warms and expiration increases under the winds of March. Root systems may have trouble finding enough moisture then to replace that being lost.

Some trees cling to their fruit for most of the winter, lending eye relief in the white months and offering fresh forage for birds and squirrels. Others will retain a leaf or two, refusing to give up the last vestige of summer. Outside my window, the Amur maple has a clutch of maple keys that will surely feed some birds in the weeks to come.

All the trees are beautiful, stripped to the bare essentials, their elegant bones exposed to gladden the eye and heart.

(She is such a tree hugger you say.

I am.)


10 thoughts on “My love affair with winter bones

  1. Louella Bingham says:

    Beautiful words for the grand trees which hold the promise of another
    Wonderful spring.

  2. Gary Lund says:

    Thanks, Dorothy. Gardening magazines and commentaries seem to focus on primroses, bird feeders and the like. That’s fine, but it’s refreshing to read praises for trees, and about some tree history around Winnipeg. Majestic things, aren’t they?

    It’s eye-opening to learn that the prairie rivers (e.g., the flood-prone Red River) were at one time lined with a mixed hardwood forest that would have moderated flooding. From another tree lover (and former arborist), in Vancouver.

  3. Marilyn Haugen says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, from a fellow tree-lover!

  4. What a lovely post. It is always good to celebrate trees especially elms. Sadly here in the UK we lost all ours to Dutch elm disease decades ago but we still miss them. They grew in our hedgerows giving majesty to the countryside.

    • We have started replanting them from the seeds of those that survived, hoping that this stock would have more resistance. Since they aren’t really vulnerable to the beetle and the disease until they are about a decade old we will have to wait to see if our experiment is paying off.

  5. Garden bones are such an important part of gardens both where you live and where I do since so much of the year – is Winter! When I look out my windows at Lake Michigan or over the gardens, I need to see forms, shadows, structures, and the green of pines. Liked your posting today.

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