University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Winter News ArticleATTRACTIVE BARK IN WINTER LANDSCAPES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
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’.
‘Arctic Fire’, and my favorite—Baton Rouge. ‘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
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 arrangements.
The 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’).
In 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 Dream.
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 tree, with cinnamon peeling 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.
For 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!
The European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) has gray,
muscle-like bark and is hardy to zone 4. Related to the
bright-stemmed dogwoods, but less hardy (zone 5) is the kousa
dogwood (Cornus kousa). Its bark is a patchwork of gray,
tan, brown, and orange.
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.
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