The Winter Landscape Part Two: Colored And Textured Stems
by Elaine Christen
Wintertime is often considered bleak and monotone, just shades of grey and white, but with some planning and creative design, the landscape can be painted in a tapestry of color and texture. Second in a series of six, this article will demonstrate just how interesting and multihued your winter landscape can be by using plants with colored or textured stems.
Ideas for incorporating these beauties into your garden are everywhere, once you are looking for them. Take a drive in the mountains or a hike in the woods and you will start noticing the yellow glow of willow stems or the deep red twigs of dogwood shrubs. With snow and frost providing a stark backdrop, textured stems like those of the ninebark really stand out. Likewise, colored stems that are pretty in the brown and tan of early winter really pop once the ground is covered with snow.
To get maximum impact from colored and textured stems, use thoughtful placement. Colored stems are brightest when massed, while textured stems work best as an accent or specimen. Dark colored backgrounds such as evergreens show off lighter colored stems and textures, while a light background brings out darker tones.
For the brightest stems, practice restorative pruning. In early spring, simply remove about 25 percent of the stems as close to the ground as possible. The resulting new growth will be smooth and bright. Each year remove a few of the oldest stems to keep the plant fresh looking.
Textured stems, on the other hand, look better as they mature, so they need to be allowed to gain age and girth, while selectively pruning out smaller twigs to accentuate the plant’s form and interesting bark.
Here are some good choices for enhancing the winter view out your window:
Red Twig Dogwood Cornus sericea
This is truly an all season plant, with clusters of creamy white flowers in early summer giving way to small bluish-white berries that birds love. The clean, bright green leaves turn purplish bronze in the fall, and in winter, the green stems turn bright red. There are many cultivars available, from the trusty Baileyi, which gets 8’ tall and wide, to the medium sized Isanti at 5’ tall and 7’ wide, and the dwarf Kelseyi, which only gets 30” tall and wide and has much finer stems. Red twigs are perfect for soggy spots that would kill other plants, but do just fine with normal, consistent watering in regular soils, too. Hedges, accents in borders, and screens are just some uses. Hardy in zones 2-8, full to part sun.
Yellow Twig Dogwood Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’
Indistinguishable from Red Twig dogwoods during the summer, the yellow twig earns its name as the temperatures fall along with the leaves. The bright yellow twigs are a standout accent or hedge, especially with a backdrop of deep green evergreens. They have the same hardiness and sun requirements as Red Twigs.
Golden Curls Willow Salix matsudana ‘Golden Curls’
A small tree or large shrub, Golden Curls is showy in many ways—curly, semi-pendulous orangey-yellow branches, useful in floral arrangements, and spectacular in winter. A dusting of snow brings out all of the twisty details of this accent plant. Fast growing to 15-20’, then slower to 25’. This plant can also be coppiced (cut back to the ground) to form a dense shrub with intense stem color. Otherwise, practice restorative pruning to keep fresh stems coming. Hardy to zone 4, full to part sun, moderate deep water. For a reddish stemmed version, try ‘Scarlet Curls’.
Japanese Kerria Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’
A graceful, arching shrub with half dollar sized double yellow flowers in late spring, the Japanese Kerria is a beautiful accent for a semi shady spot. It can tolerate wet or dry soils and reaches 5-7’ tall and 6-8’ wide. These attributes alone make this plant worth owning, but in winter it works overtime by adding a large splash of bright green twigs. As with other spring bloomers, they flower on last year’s stems, so prune only after they bloom. Restorative pruning keeps Kerria clean and fresh. Hardy in zones 5 to 9.
Colored Stems plus Texture
Amur Chokecherry Prunus maackii
This is another all season gem—white flowers in spring, bright green foliage, clusters of deep red berries and luminous yellow fall color, and shiny, peeling cinnamon colored bark. What’s not to love? If you want a tree to live in your lawn, don’t pick this one. It needs deep, well- drained soil and will die with wet feet. It lives just 20-40 years. But with all its attributes, along with a manageable 20’ height, it is worth having as a specimen, especially when it is up-lit at night. Full sun, hardy to zone 3.
Ninebark Physocarpus opulifolius
Ninebark is one of those bullet-proof plants that work well in any garden with some space to fill. Although they are available in yellow and green leaved varieties, the purple ones really shine. Vertically peeling grey and brown bark add winter interest, while deep purple to burgundy leaves and pinkish white flowers provide a strong background for lighter, more delicate plants. ‘Diablo’ is the darkest ninebark, and the largest at 8-10’ tall and wide. ‘Coppertina’ starts coppery in spring, becoming rich burgundy in summer and gets 8’ tall and 5’ wide. ‘Center Glow’ emerges rosy burgundy with a golden center, becoming deep burgundy and gets 6’ tall and wide. ‘Summer Wine’ is a compact version of ‘Diablo’,reaching 5’ tall and wide. They all like full sun and are hardy at least to zone 3.
River Birch Betula nigra
The River Birch is a tough, super hardy tree that only needs lots of water and a place to show off its peeling two-tone bark. At just 20-25’ tall and 15-20’ wide it will fit into almost any yard. It is resistant to birch borer and is fire resistant as well. Try up-lighting for spectacular night effects. Full to part sun, hardy in zones 4-7.
I hope these suggestions inspire you to add some new plants to your winter landscape. In coming years, you can look outside at a much more interesting snow-scape!
Next week I’ll write about, ”Plants With Colorful Berries”. In the meantime, please visit us on Facebook, if you’re so inclined. And if you’re a Twitter hound (who isn’t, right?), you can find us on Twitter HERE.
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