As winter finally turns into spring (hopefully), it’s time to take one last look at that harsh period that started in late December and ran non-stop into early March.
By Bill Lawyer
As winter finally turns into spring (hopefully), it’s time to take one last look at that harsh period that started in late December and ran non-stop into early March. Everyone I spoke to focused on the negative aspects of seemingly perpetual sub-freezing temperatures.
Yes, we could say that maybe the cold weather killed some deer ticks, and maybe the red holly and skimmia berries brought some cheer. But it was little comfort when we had to go outside and re-shovel the snow out of the driveways, every time the plow came by and brought it back again.
And what about those huge fuel bills, as both natural gas and heating oil prices went so high that they blew us away like an arctic polar vortex.
But then there was one more item on the plus side. In fact, there were two bright rays of rosy/coral-colored cheerfulness that helped warm my cold-reddened face as I took my dog Max on his daily walks around the neighborhood.
I’m referring to a variety of Japanese maple trees known informally as Coral Bark maples. Their official name is Acer palmatum Sango Kaku.
One is on the front yard of a house on Oakland Beach Avenue, and the other is in the “flagpole garden” at Rye Town Park.
Throughout this past winter, after their leaves had fallen to the ground, the branches of these trees (see photos) have turned bright pinkish/red – what horticulturalists call coral. It’s almost like a neon color, particularly when hit by the morning or afternoon sun.
While these trees have been in their present location for several years, I had not really noticed them before. At first I was thinking that maybe I’m not as observant as I thought I am. (It has been a while since I crammed to get high scores on the SAT’s.)
“Dr. Bassuk wouldn’t speculate as to “why” the trees produce this red coating, one can theorize that it helps to protect the branches from damage due to ice or frost.”
But then, as I started to do some research on the trees, I learned that in fact in many recently-past years, when the temperatures have been less extremely cold, most of the Coral Bark Maples only turned a slight, barely noticeable shade of coral.
It takes a cold winter to bring out the bright color.
As I explored a variety of horticultural and professional nursery Internet sites, I learned that this variety of maples has been developed through selective husbandry for hundreds of years.
Not all Coral Bark maples are similarly endowed with the ability to “turn coral” as the thermometers drop. In fact, many of the Sango Kaku Internet sites I located were filled with dissatisfied customers who claim that their saplings stopped turning coral in just a few years.
Most everyone has encountered changes in color in leaves. Perhaps fewer have seen color changes in reptiles such as chameleons. How do they do that?
With Sango Kaku, according to Cornell University horticulturalist Dr. Nina Bassuk, the color comes from a substance produced in the cells of the bark. Cold temperatures trigger the production of this substance. The substance is like a wax or sap that coats the branches. Dr. Bassuk says this is the same process that occurs in several other trees and shrubs – such as red-stem dogwoods and Virginia sweetspire.
While Dr. Bassuk wouldn’t speculate as to “why” the trees produce this red coating, one can theorize that it helps to protect the branches from damage due to ice or frost.
In evolutionary terms, the trees that produce the substance are more likely to thrive, while those that don’t die off in cold winters.
I wish I could report that the substance also repels deer, but according to various Sango Kaku bloggers the deer have been seen to enjoy a tasty meal of red branches from time to time.
Fortunately, the two I see each day on my walks have done well over the winter, glowing warmly, right in our backyards.