University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
IN WINTER LANDSCAPES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
The short, grey days of winter in
the north, coupled with snow, often create landscapes that resemble a black and
white photo. Winter landscapes need not
be drab and dreary, and can have color, by choosing plants for interesting bark.
One of my favorite shrubs for its
bright red stems is the Red-osier dogwood (Cornus
sericea). For even better color than
the species, look for the cultivars (cultivated varieties) ‘Cardinal’ and
‘Arctic Fire’. ‘Flaviramea’ is a common
yellow-stemmed cultivar of this species, but it is not as colorful nor as
resistant to stem cankers as the Tatarian dogwood ‘Bud’s Yellow’ (Cornus alba). For a combination of colors, try the less
common Bloodtwig dogwood (C. sanguinea)
‘Midwinter Fire’ with its bright yellow-orange stems topped with red.
Whatever the selection you choose of
the bright-stemmed dogwoods, the color may be more green in summer, turning
bright in winter, then back to more green next spring. Color is brightest on year-old stems, so the
key to keeping good color is pruning back the oldest stems each spring so new
ones will develop that growing season.
Shrub dogwoods are hardy, and quite vigorous given full sun (but can
tolerate some shade), and can be pruned to within a few inches of the ground to
renew overgrown bushes. They are
adaptable to many soils, tolerating wet ones and even drought once established. I like to use their stems in holiday
coral bark willow cultivar ‘Britzensis’ (Salix
alba) rivals the shrub dogwoods for stem color, its
year-old stems being red-orange in winter.
It too is quite hardy and adaptable as are the shrub dogwoods. Although it can grow into a large tree, cut
it back each spring to keep into a shorter mound.
For plants with the added benefit of
summer fruit, some of the brambles have stems with color. In my garden, the arching silvery red stems
of a ‘Bristol’ black raspberry contrast nicely with the dark red upright stems
of a ‘Darrow’ blackberry. For a similar
stem effect to ‘Bristol’, consider the Redleaf rose (Rosa glauca) with its waxy purple stems.
Green is a color that is lacking in
northern winter landscapes, except for evergreen plants, but for a deciduous
shrub consider the Japanese kerria (Kerria
japonica). Hardy to USDA zone 5 (-20
to -10 degrees F) and perhaps a bit colder, this old-fashioned shrub has
arching stems and a rounded form. It has
bright yellow flowers in spring, yellow fall leaves, and bright green stems
(yellow with green stripes on the less common cultivar ‘Kin Kan’).
addition to bark color, some woody plants have attractive peeling
(“exfoliating”) bark. Most familiar of
such plants is the River birch (Betula
nigra) with its tan to pink peeling bark at a young age. The best choice and commonly found cultivar
of River birch is ‘Heritage’. The Himalayian (B. utilis var. jacquemontii)
and white birches (B. papyrifera)
have white peeling bark. A good choice
for the latter, resistant to the common bronze birch borer, is Prairie
If you like lilacs, consider the
Peking lilac (Syringa pekinensis) and
its cultivar ‘China Snow’ with glossy, coppery bark that peels in strips. Flowers are in mid-June, a creamy white more
similar to the tree lilac than the common lilac.
Slower growing than birch or the
Peking lilac, and hardy to USDA zone 5 is the Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum). This choice landscape plant makes a small
papery bark in winter. As the peeling effect can vary with plant, choose ones
at your local nursery
with the best bark. Look for the
cultivar Gingerbread whose leaves turn bright red in fall, and is faster
growing than the species.
Species of Stewartia with peeling bark
that is mottled brown, gold and grey include the Korean (Stewartia korena) and the Japanese (S. pseudocamellia). As the
name of the latter indicates, the white summer flowers resemble camellias. Another bonus on these is the red to orange
fall leaf color. If you live in USDA
zone 5 or warmer, consider these.
a more unusual large shrub or small tree, look for the Seven Sons flower (Heptacodium miconioides). A relatively recent introduction from China,
this choice plant can be seen in mass at the Chinese garden at the Montreal
Botanical Gardens. The small, fragrant white flowers bloom in September. The bark peels in long, vertical strips to
create a tan and brown effect. Seven
Sons is hardy into USDA zone 4b (-20 to -25 degrees F).
Bark on some small trees may not
peel but is still quite attractive. A
couple of my favorites are cherries-- the paperbark (Prunus serrula) and the Amur chokecherry (P. maackii). They are relatively fast growing, with glossy cinnamon
bark. The latter is often short-lived
due to weak branch structure or girdling roots, but one I had lasted over 20
years. I had it (and now its replacement
of the same) planted in our front yard where we can see its beautiful bark, and
where the birds can land on their way to our feeders. It has amazed me how many holes in the bark
it can withstand due to woodpeckers and sapsuckers!
Look for these and other shrubs and
trees with attractive bark when adding plants to your landscape. They’ll provide interest long after flowers
and leaves are done with their show.