Many varieties of cornus, the dogwoods, are outstanding, as are some salix, willows, and some varieties of Acer palmatum, the Japanese maples. Of the latter Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ (‘Senkaki’), the Coral bark maple is the one to grow if you want colourful stems. . This is a slender, upright plant when young, with fine twigs carrying delicate, light-green foliage. The leaves turn a soft canary-yellow in autumn, before they fall to reveal the brilliant coral- red young stems. Although this maple grows into a small tree with age it is slow, and therefore suitable for the small garden and perfect for a large pot. In a container I love it underplanted with the black grass-like perennial Ophiopogon planiscarpus ‘Nigrescens’
The glowing twigs of the willow, Salix alba ‘Britzensis’ are a familiar sight against blue winter skies. Although the scarlet willow is a large, graceful tree it can also be grown as a shrub if the stems are cut back to a little above ground level each spring. Willows are excellent plants for wet and heavy soil, and they grow easily from rooted cuttings. The cut stems of willow will even root in water if you leave them in a vase for a few weeks. Grown as shrubs these stooled willows (in other words cut back to just above ground level each spring) are lovely planted along side water where their glowing wands are reflected in still, cold water.
The red-barked dogwood, Cornus alba is perhaps the best known shrub grown for its winter stems, and there are several varieties with coloured and variegated foliage which add colour to the garden throughout the summer. The variety which produces the most intensely coloured stems is the plain green-leaved Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, this has glowing scarlet winter bark on the vigorous upright stems. I’ve never been that positive about its other attributes, but having really noticed its crimson autumn leaf colour last fall I have completely changed my mind.
To encourage vigorous growth, and fine upright stems you need to prune hard in early spring, to just a little above ground level. This may seem harsh but your plant will respond with glorious straight wands that grow quickly and light up the garden the following winter. The long, wand-like stems of this cornus are flexible and can be cut and made into Christmas wreaths or garlands for decoration. The cut stems also look effective in a glass vase and remain in good condition for several weeks.
Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ is the green-leaved dogwood with greenish-yellow stems that is often planted with Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’. As an individual plant it would not be one of my first choices for a garden but when you see it as part of a mass planting you realize just how much its olive hue lights up the more intense colours. It’s also good in gold and green planting schemes, with yellow variegated evergreens, adding green leaves in summer and gold stems in winter.
Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ lives up to its name; this is my favourite dogwood for winter colour. The branched stems are orange-gold at the base, and flame orange at the tips of the shoots. Even a single plant is a real feature in the winter garden, even on dull cloudy days. This cornus grows well on wet or dry soil and is a good subject for a pot for a season or two. Again hard pruning in late winter is essential for the showiest shoots; having said that I have seen specimens left to grow into large shrubs. They have quite a horizontally branched habit and the youngest wood is still flame orange in winter. This can be very effective under deciduous trees where shafts of sunlight light them in winter.
There are a number of newer cultivars. ‘Midwinter Flame’ I noticed this autumn for its sensational golden fall foliage. ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’ is a more scarlet orange for the length of the stems. Last winter it looked particularly sensational underplanted with Hedera colchica ‘Dentata Variegata’.
These Cornus sanguinea varieties all have light green foliage which mixes well with other shrubs and perennials. They also colour brilliantly in autumn. They make a great backdrop for any garden feature or piece of sculpture as these objects become even more significant in the winter garden.
Of course any of these plants grown for their winter stems look spectacular against freshly fallen snow. However, not all of us can rely on a generous sprinkling to enhance our plants. So for best effect it is best to underplant shrubs for winter stems grown in beds with evergreen ground cover subjects such as vinca, hedera or carex, these will show them off so much more than a background of bare earth.
Savill Garden, Windsor Great Park, Berkshire and The Winter Garden at The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire are two great gardens in the UK to see winter stems at their best. I’d love to hear about other gardens where you’ve admired winter stems, and of course your favourite shrubs for magic wands.