Snow Catchers

Snow Catchers

 Snow transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.  Dull landscapes turn into breathtaking splendors and, trite though it sounds, into a winter wonderland.  Plant horizontally branched trees and shrubs to catch the snow and hold it aloft until it melts.  Bur and White Oaks with their burly outstretched arms do it best; their open branch pattern is magnificent seen against a winter sky


White Oaks  BFP  winter

White Oaks at Burnidge Forest Preserve  12/27/09

The magnificent bare bones of our large old trees outlined against the cold winter sky dominate the Midwest landscape now. The most notable are the wide spreading, brawny Bur and White Oak in oak openings throughout the countryside.

White Oak (Quercus alba) is the state tree of Illinois,  “a symbol of sturdy grace and elegance,” says Dick Young in Kane County Wild Plants & Natural Areas. The whitish, ashy-gray cast to the bark gives it its name and is a sure-fire way to identify a White Oak in the woods .  It grows 40-60’ tall with picturesque, wide spreading limbs, as wide as it is tall.    Dick Young also tells us that it is only reproducing itself in a few locations–Burnidge Forest Preserve, shown above, is one such location.


Bur Oak winter Century Oaks

Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) at Century Oaks, 3/20/14, the subdivision in which I used to live.  What could possibly be more magnificent than these bold, massive trees, that will grow from 40-75’ tall and wide?

Bur Oak Bark

Its deeply-furrowed, rough bark is resistant to fire, which allowed Bur Oak to survive prairie fires and grow in the midst of a prairie, creating “oak openings.”   Bur Oak will live 300 years and “withstands the onslaught of our civilization better than other oak trees,” according to Dick Young.

If you have oak trees on your property, help them thrive by underplanting them with native grasses, sedges, and woodland wildflowers instead of a lawn.

blue beech snow catcher

Blue Beech (Carpinus caroliniana)  at St. Charles Park District.  12/7/2009.  Blue Beech, also known as Musclewood or Hornbeam is one of the most striking trees for winter effect there is.  Its smooth gray-blue bark forms ripples on the trunk and branches that resemble muscles–hence the name.    Growing up to 30’ tall and wide, it can be grown on a single or multiple  trunks.  An understory tree in the wild, it prefers partial shade and moist or mesic soil in a landscape.  Its horizontal branches echo the horizontal lines of the fence, both adept at catching snow.

If you don’t have room for a large tree, there are several ornamental trees that are splendid snow-catchers.  Jen Jensen’s beloved hawthorns have a wide-spreading horizontal branching pattern that reflects the prairie; Black Haw mimics the shape of the hawthorn, and works well, also.

Black Haw & Trellis Winter

My yard 2/22/10.  Black Haw with trellis and birdbath. Black Haw (Viburnum prunefolium), an understory shrub or small tree, grows up to 15’ tall and wide with layered horizontal branches.  The branches hold snow as does the intricacies of the trellis and the birdbath.

While we slept, these formal gardens

worked their disguise,  The Warden’s

Judas and tulip trees awake 

in ermine.

Cecil Day Lewis


(“Judas Tree”, in this instance refers to Cercis siliquastrum, native to the Mediterranean, from which Judas Iscariot is reputed to have hanged himself.)

Redbud winer bluesky

12/28/09 Redbud  (Cercis canadensis) in my neighborhood 2/22/10.  Another woodland understory tree, it grows fast to 15’ high and 10’ wide.  Its early fuchsia-pink flowers cover the bare stems in May, followed by smooth heart-shaped leaves that turn golden in fall.  In the winter, it becomes a sculpture outlined by its snow-covered branches.


My beautiful picture Witch Hazel 1/1/08  (Hamemelis virginiana) at a house in Elgin.  The snow has covered the amazing, still blooming, golden flowers.  Witch Hazel is an open, multi-stem shrub or small tree, 10-12’ tall with a horizontal branching pattern.  It is indigenous to shaded, wooded slopes throughout the eastern half of our country.  In my experience it will not grow in the vicinity of Black Walnut trees.

pagoda dogwood winter

12/7/09  Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)  at St. Charles Park District.  Yet one more small understory tree, the widely spaced horizontal branches grow in tiers and do indeed resemble a pagoda.  It grows up to 15-20’ tall and wide.  White, 4-petaled flowers bloom in spring, followed by clusters of blue-black berries in August–very attractive to birds.  It likes to grow on shady, moist, calcareous soils in mesic woodlands, but I have seen it grown in landscape situations, as well.  A  northeast corner of a building next to a downspout would suit it.

patio snowcatcher

2/6/08  My patio.  Outdoor furniture and decorations hold layers of snow, also.



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