WINTER IN WASHINGTON can be miserable. When it snows, there's enough to snarl traffic but not enough for skiing. There's just enough sunshine to provide a few unseasonably nice days and to remind us there are warmer climes. And it's the season least pleasing to the eye: Nature seems to have deserted us, carting off our chlorophyll, leaving us with the mere skeletons of trees.
But if you take a closer look, there's winter beauty in Washington.
There's plenty to admire in winter trees: their architecture against the sunset; infinite variations in shape, color and texture of bark, twigs, buds and bird-luring fruit. And there's a special bonus at this time of year: Look closely amid the wealth of subtle arboreal signals and you'll be among the first to see the coming of spring.
The most conspicuous winter trees here in the temperate zone are, of course, the evergreens: cone-bearing trees (conifers) such as pines, spruces and firs, and broad-leafed non-deciduous types, including the hollies and the Southern Magnolia. Washington is adorned with many kinds of evergreens, oases of color during the gray months. In addition to members of our local flora, we also have evergreens from the North, the South, the West Coast and many foreign lands.
The most striking evergreens around town are three types of true cedars, exotic (or foreign) trees that are unrelated to the small native tree we call Red Cedar. The true cedars grow to magnificent proportions, with long, gracefully sweeping branches. Their needles are borne in clusters on short woody projections known as "spur shoots" and their barrel-shaped cones grow straight up on the branch.
The most commonly planted among them is the Deodar Cedar, a native of the Himalayan Mountains. You'll find it in many parks and at Dumbarton Oaks. Its tall silhouette is particularly striking at sunset. The most gorgeous Deodar Cedar in the area stands directly behind the Custis-Lee Mansion (or Arlington House) in Arlington Cemetery.
Equally as beautiful and nearly as popular is the Silver Atlas or Atlantic Cedar, native to the Atlas Mountains of northern Africa. It has striking silvery-blue foliage, which is breathtaking after a snowfall. Look for it at the Washington Cathedral, in parks and cemeteries and at Mount Vernon on the hillside sloping toward the Potomac.
The rarest of Washington's true cedars is the Cedar of Lebanon, imported from the Middle East. According to legend, the Cedar of Lebanon provided the wood for King Solomon's temple. In 1899 a delegation of Masons planted a Cedar of Lebanon near George Washington's Mount Vernon gravesite in commemoration of the centenary of his death. The tree has flourished throughout the century and is a magnificent sight on a winter afternoon. It's a lovely memorial to our first president, who was a tree-lover and accomplished horticulturist. At Mount Vernon you can see the living proof: Several trees planted by Washington himself still thrive on the Bowling Green.
Another of our coniferous foreign transplants is the Cryptomeria, indigenous to China and Japan. Its sharply pointed needle-like foliage curves inward toward the branchlet, but its most outstanding features are its cone and bark. The Cryptomeria cone is round or nearly so, an inch or less in diameter, with wedge-shaped scales bearing small, curved spines. The bark is cinnamon red, peeling off in thin strips on a straight, gradually tapered trunk. Look for the Cryptomeria next to the Capitol, on embassy grounds and in private yards and on public grounds throughout town.
Our western conifers look a bit bedraggled in the summer humidity and a trifle out of place in the midst of our tropical-looking foliage. But in the winter they come into their own. The rare California Incense-Cedar is a sight to behold on a bleak day. Small clusters of this slender and dramatic tree are planted on the hill outside the lion and tiger compound at the National Zoo and near the old church in Rock Creek Cemetery.
Two of its western neighbors are planted on the Capitol grounds: the Douglas Fir, occurring naturally from Canada to Mexico, and the Giant Sequoia, indigenous to only the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada in California. The trees on the Hill have a little growing to do before they resemble their massive ancestors out west. Another western evergreen, the Colorado Blue Spruce, is popular in gardens throughout the city and suburbs.
Among the many pines planted in Washington are species from North America, Europe and Asia. One of the most popular is the Eastern White Pine, occurring naturally in the eastern states and Canada. It has soft, slender, green needles attached to the branch in bundles of fives. This tree is an excellent winter backdrop for Washington's white-stone monuments, most notably the Jefferson Memorial.
Two non-coniferous evergreens often planted next to memorials and government buildings are the American Holly and the Southern Magnolia. Both provide attractive, broad-leafed foliage year-round, and the hollies contribute a touch of scarlet to the winter landscape with their small, berry-like fruit. The National Arboretum has noteworthy conifer and holly collections that include many exotic types as well as native specimens.
Now a few words about our deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in autumn), which may look to the non-enthusiast like bundles of dead sticks right now. Here, imagination and faith won't go unrewarded.
Surprisingly enough, botanists have little trouble distinguishing among deciduous trees in the wintertime, owing to a sort of natural hieroglyphics etched on the twigs and bark. When the leaves fall, they leave clues behind. A small scar remains on the twig where the leaf stalk has broken off in autumn, and this leaf scar varies in size and shape depending on the species. For instance, the Ailanthus leaf stalk leaves behind a rather large, heart-shaped leaf scar, while the leaf scar of the White Ash is broadly U-shaped.
Even more helpful to the serious tree sleuth are the winter buds, embryos of spring's and summer's leaves and flowers, formed during the warm months of the previous year.
To the trained eye, the size, shape and placement of winter buds can often reveal the species of the tree at a glance. To the ordinary enthusiast, winter tree buds promise the renewal of life through the gray days. And swelling buds are among the first signs of spring.
Perhaps the most conspicuous are the flower buds of the Paulownia or Princess Tree, imported from Asia and now growing wild throughout our area. Next time you're walking along the C&O Canal in Georgetown, look closely at the trees with the brown, inch-long capsules on them. On the same trees, you'll notice tall, pyramidal clusters of small, round buds, the color and texture of suede. In May these buds will yield fragrant, lavender Paulownia blossoms, and in the meantime, you can fantasize.
Winter buds give away the identity of two other common flowering trees. Dogwoods have tiny, onion-shaped flower buds, one on the end of each branchlet; and the winter twigs of the Saucer Magnolia end in large white or gray-green furry buds.
Many trees hang on to their fruit through the winter, scattering their seeds on the wind or relying on wildlife to do the job.
Noted for their winter fruit are the Sycamore and its hybrid half-sibling, the London Plane (a cross between the Sycamore and the Oriental Plane). The Sycamore and London Plane are planted in many parks and along streets throughout town. You can't miss these large trees, with their pale tan-and-ivory bark, peeling off in jigsaw-puzzle patterns. But although the two are easy to distinguish from other trees, telling one from the other is another story.
In this piece of arboreal detective work, you'll actually fare better without foliage. The sycamore bears a round, tight bundle of brown seeds hanging on a single stalk, like a Christmas tree ornament. With the leaves gone, these seedballs are plainly visible. The London Plane bears identical-looking fruit, except that on the plane you'll find a few of the seedballs hanging in pairs (two on a stalk, one above the other) along with the singles.
Bark is another striking attribute of winter trees, a feature usually overshadowed by foliage and flowers. The bark of the American Beech looks like polished pewter in bright winter light. And the little summer-flowering Crape-Myrtle has stunning bark -- pale, smooth and peeling. It makes you want to reach out and touch it, and if you yield to the impulse you'll find it delightfully smooth.
Last but hardly least, winter is a good time to appreciate the architecture of grand old trees and capture them on film. The architectural star among trees is undoubtedly the American Elm. Many elms have fallen and continue to succumb to Dutch elm disease, but those that remain remind us of the elm-lined towns that used to stretch across America. We're relatively lucky here. Our tree caretakers have done an excellent job of removing diseased trees promptly, unfortunately still the best way to halt the spread of the disease. Visit the Mall on a winter evening to see the vase- shaped American Elm in all its glory.
Arlington and Rock Creek cemeteries, Dumbarton Oaks and Montrose Park are all good places to see and photograph venerable trees. A warning, though: To capture branches against winter skies you'll need a polarizing lens to minimize glare.
With a little luck and imagination, you may find yourself actually enjoying late winter in Washington. Or in Yankee fashion, at least appreciating it as the essential, punishing prelude to a dramatic spring.
Here are some of the earliest tree signs of spring.
Around about now, right on the heels of the first crocuses, the Red and Silver Maples and many of our native and exotic elms will bloom. These red, greenish and mahogany blossoms are tiny but they're also profuse, and if you've been watching the trees all winter, these first-comers will warm your heart.
In March, the buds of many trees will swell and pop and the first really showy flowers will appear. So don't wait for the cherry blossoms. By the time they arrive, you've already missed the peak flowering of the Cornelian Cherry (a small tree with tiny yellow blossoms that's really a dogwood) and the Asian Star, Kobus and Yulan magnolias. Prowl around the parks, the Capitol and Library of Congress grounds and Dumbarton Oaks in mid-to-late March if you want to see these first spring pastels.
Don't be afraid of looking like a lunatic with your head in a tree. Just think of what all those proper people, carrying briefcases and looking straight ahead, are missing.
If you feel you need it, a camera is good cover for the tree freak. Or even binoculars, since bird-watching is easier to explain than bud-watching.