Too often a garden in winter can be a picture of black leafless branches under a dull gloomy sky. But with a clever choice of trees and shrubs you can liven up the scene through the winter months until the leaves start to grow again in the spring. The answer is to choose trees and shrubs that have interesting bark. This article by Nancy Rose which I found over on the Fine Gardening website has some great suggestions and stunning photos too.
In Minnesota, where the leafless season can last nearly six months, it?s essential to consider winter interest when designing a landscape. But even if you live in a milder climate, where winter may be only a chilly month or two, it?s still worthwhile to select a few plants that will enliven the winter view.
Unusual branch structure, colorful fruit, and persistent seed heads can all give a woody plant winter interest, but unusual bark characteristics can be particularly eye-catching. Trees and shrubs that have colorful, exfoliating, or shiny bark can make outstanding additions to the winter landscape. In spring, summer, and fall, the foliage or flowers of these plants are likely to be their most noticeable feature, but once the leaves drop and the snow starts to fall, their dramatic bark takes center stage.The showiest plants for winter interest are those with bright red, yellow, or orange bark. Few plants have more colorful winter bark than red-stemmed dogwood (Cornus sericea), a large shrub growing to 6 to 8 feet tall if unpruned, with a wide native range in the United States and Canada. Stem color within the species varies from bright red to dark burgundy-red. Several cultivars, including ?Cardinal? and ?Baileyi? (sometimes listed as a species rather than a cultivar) are known for outstanding red stem color.
Yellow-stemmed dogwood cultivars can also add a bright highlight to the winter landscape. ?Bud?s Yellow? Tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba ?Bud?s Yellow?)?is one of the best and seems to be more resistant to stem cankers than ?Flaviramea?, the most commonly sold yellow-stemmed cultivar of C. sericea.
If you peeked under the foliage of any of these dogwoods in summer you might be surprised to see that the stems are green. The stems develop their bright colors with the onset of cold weather, remain colorful through the winter, then gradually return to green as temperatures warm in the spring. All of the shrub dogwoods are easy to grow in full sun or partial shade and wet to moderately dry soils.
The brightest color appears on year-old stems, so regular pruning is essential to keep these plants colorful. The key is to prune out old stems in spring to encourage new stems to grow from the base. Overgrown shrub dogwoods can be renewed by pruning all stems down to within a few inches of the base.
Coral-bark willow (Salix alba ?Britzensis?) rivals even the brightest red-stemmed dogwood for winter color. With its golden stems and red-orange twigs, this willow can grow into a fairly large tree. It?s best to cut the plant nearly to the ground each year in early spring, producing a medium-size shrub composed entirely of colorful young stems that will glow in the winter landscape. Like most willows, this selection prefers full sun and moist soil.