by Jim Atwater

Everyone probably has their favorite season of the year. For some the exuberant awakening of nature each spring is the best, while others look forward to the warm, embracing days of summer and the fecundity they brine. Yet many find autumn with its awesome display of colors bathed alternately in light and shadow to be most to their liking, while gelid, lonesome, solitary winter tends to be unloved except by winter sports enthusiasts. For many of us winter becomes the forgotten season, but it shouldn’t be so, for it provides an opportunity not available during the rest of the year. For with the absence of obscuring foliage from deciduous plants one has the finest opportunity to study and appreciate the “bones” or skeletal structure of a woody plant. Not only is it the best time of year to perform major pruning tasks, but offers the observer an incomparable opportunity to study the architectural harmony of the crown and unique features of the bark.

Beauty of Winter

What better way to spend a winter’s day than touring Highland Park with its remarkable collection of deciduous plants, both native and foreign. The original plan for the park was to populate it with plants from around the globe that could flourish in a zone 6 environment. On February 9, 1934, a temperature of -22? F was recorded in downtown Rochester (and -34? to -40? in areas south of Monroe County), the historic low since recordkeeping began. I was told by park personnel that several trees suffered dieback to the ground, but that two rebounded vigorously the following spring, albeit with multiple stems. Some were the three Chinese Toon trees on the southeast corner of South Goodman St. and Highland Avenue. Another was the multi-stemmed Korean Bee Bee Tree (Evodia hupehensis) just south of the walk below the center of the reservoir, with now six main leaders and numerous satellite ones. I viewed this story with suspicion, that is until the ice storm of early March 1991. Many plants were damaged during that event, including stress fracture on one of the evodia’s leaders. In order to spare the rest, it became necessary to remove the damaged portion, which left a clean cut near the base. I later counted the rings which confirmed that the age of the severed stem matched up exactly with the 1934 growing season. That it flourishes today some seventy years later is a testament to the tenacity of nature. With its smooth, purple/gray beech-like bark and many-stemmed patulous crown it forms a striking contrast to what is normally a single-trunked medium-sized tree.

There are far too many plants in Highland Park to list in this brief survey, but a practical start would be to pick up the Highland Park brochure, including guide and map, at Lamberton Conservatory, located at the corner of South and Reservoir Avenues. Using this, one can select how much of the park’s 155 acres they have time to explore. The visitor will find that excellent signage in the form of identification tags can be found on most of the plants that capture their interest. In fact with the lack of foliage in the wintertime it’s far easier to locate the ID tags.

Winter beech tree

Just a few suggestions for those visitors with limited time. When leaving the conservatory stop in front, looking due west across the South Avenue intersection. You’ll see a cluster of three medium-sized trees with bronze, peeling bark – Chinese paperbark maples planted around 1911, the second-oldest planting in N. America. Another recommended spot to visit is the overlook at the east end of the reservoir. From this vantage point you can enjoy a much clearer perspective of the southern half of the park and in good weather see the Bristol hills in the distance. Just south of the overlook are several unusual specimen plants – a very large Japanese raisin tree and Korean dogwoods, all over a century old. Nearby are two vigorous Persian parrotias thought to have been destroyed in the 1991 ice storm, but like the Korean evodia mentioned earlier, not quitters, having reconstituted themselves over the last thirteen years. A stroll further downhill towards Highland Ave. will bring you to the magnificent katsura tree with its three massive leaders and a surface root system suggesting some mythological sea serpents frozen in time. Bearing towards S. Goodman St., return to the pinnacle by way of Rhododendron Dell just east of the reservoir, and if you have time strike off in another direction.

So let’s not have another winter go by without at least one visit to the park. Not only will it offer a deeper insight into a remarkable plant collection, but will enrich one’s enjoyment of this special plant collection during the other three seasons of the year.

Photos copyright Kimbery Burkard, 2009.