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Stems & bark

Brighten up winter with bark and stems

Cornus Midwinter Fire and Betula Greywood's Ghost at RHS Harlow Carr
Cornus Midwinter Fire and Betula utilis var. jacquemontii Grayswood Ghost at RHS Harlow Carr

Winter shouldn’t be a time with no interest in a garden. Sure, flowers are virtually non-existent, but you have to look deeper and plan ahead to see beauty.

This is where coloured and textured stems and bark come into their own. It’s easy for these plants to be overlooked – that’s why it’s best to choose them in winter when you can appreciate their impact.

Dogwoods (Cornus): Tough as nails, between 1.5m and 2.5m tall, with white/cream flowers in late spring, some with variegated or brightly-coloured leaves. They’ll tolerate some shade, but it’s stem colour they’re grown for. To get the best winter colour, you must prune them hard in early spring (pollarding).

  • C. alba Sibirica: bright red stems.
  • C. sanguinea Midwinter Fire and Winter Beauty: orange-red stems.
  • C. stolonifera Flaviramea: acid green/yellow;
  • C. alba Kesselringii: dark purple/almost black, with purple-green foliage.

These varieties are (or were) in my garden:

  • C. alba Aurea: red stems with golden foliage. In the much neglected front garden, being swamped by ivy.
  • C. alba Spaethii: bright red stems with golden variegated leaves, red autumn foliage. White flowers with white-blue fruit. The backbone of my new pond bed bought for £4 in a garden centre sale.
  • C. sericea White Gold: yellow winter stems, green in summer with white variegated foliage, turning yellow in autumn. Also in the pond bed for the mighty sum of £4.
  • Cornus x alba Elegantissima: we parted on bad terms. White flowers in spring, variegated leaves and red/brown stems in winter. It outgrew its welcome and proved a hideous task to dig it out – dogwoods produce suckers.
Hyde Hall
Bridge over the lower pond with Swamp Cypress, Cortaderia selloana and Salix in the foreground at RHS Garden Hyde Hall. Picture; RHS/Jerry Harpur

Willows (Salix) – keep them pollarded, or you’ll end up with a 7m tree.

  • S. alba Britzensis: bright orange rods, a perfect contrast with the violet willow.
  •  S. daphnoides (violet willow): stems are coated with a grey-white bloom. In February, the wands produce silvery ‘pussy willow’ catkins.
  • S. phylicifolia: brownish-purple stems.
  • S. alba vitellina: golden yellow.
  • S. alba Yelverton and S. alba var. vitellina: yellow/orange stems.
  • S. alba var. vitellina Britenzis: orange.
  • S. gracilistyla Melanostachys: black catkins and brick-red anthers.

Brambles: Many have ornamental stems. The amusingly-named Rubus cockburnianus (white-stemmed bramble) is too big for an ordinary garden, but cultivar Goldenvale is less vigorous and yellow-leaved.

Hazel: Corylus avellana Contorta, the corkscrew hazel, is fascinating because of its contorted shape. In early spring, yellow-green catkins appear on the naked wood.

Bamboo: There are several varieties useful for winter stems, including Phyllostachys aureocaulis and the black-stemmed P. nigra, but not for small gardens.

Barking up the right tree for winter colour

If you’ve room for a tree, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii Grayswood Ghost is the best of the Himalayan birches, with pure white bark.

A good medium-sized tree is Betula utilis jaquemontii Silver Shadow.

Prunus serrula (Tibetan cherry): Mahogany-coloured bark, also known as the Mahogany Barked Cherry and because of its peeling bark, the Paperbark Cherry. It blooms in spring with small, white flowers and has good autumn colour.

Acers, or Japanese maples, have many varieties with interesting bark:

A. griseum (paperbark maple): bark that peels off the main trunk in thin layers, like scrolls, giving a ragged texture. Don’t let the kids pull it off!

A. davidii (snake bark maple): purple-green bark with vertical white stripes;

A. Sango-kaku (coral bark maple): does what it says on the tin;

A. davidii George Forrest: has contrasting light and dark green to brown vertical stripes on its bark.

All these maples have great autumn colour but don’t like exposed sites, as their leaves easily get scorched by strong winds.