With the endless winter skies, my eyes long for colour in this monochrome season.
Above – The yellow stems of Salix alba ‘ Golden Ness ‘ and the bright red of Cornus alba Siberia ‘Ruby’
You almost have to re-adjust your senses when you are out and about, to filter out the gloom and to find the visual delights. When you find them though they are well worth the hunt. Winter stems of Cornus, Salix, Acer and Rubus quite literally fizz and glow up into the leaden sky. I am always struck by the startling colours that glow from the bark and remember each winter just why I love them so much.
Whether planted en mass or as a single specimen the effect is welcoming. I must admit, for me their summer appearance can be rather dull. I use them in areas towards the back of a border or in a more natural planting scheme. As the autumn takes hold, the leaves turn the classical autumnal hues and these plants start to come into their own. They embrace winter in all their glory.
Above – The white stemmed Rubus cockburnius
Take a word of warning! The continual glory of these colourful stems is only ever fully realised when the correct maintenance and pruning occurs. This group of plants do prefer a moisture retentive to wet soil. They don’t like to dry out in the summer months, so when you plant them make sure you use plenty of well rotted organic matter which is dug into and around the hole, then mulch around the base after. I tend to prune the shrubs a year after they have been planted so they have had time to get the roots away. I feel to prune them hard after they’ve just been planted is too stressful for the plant, so gently does it.
Above – Cornus ‘Midwinter fire ‘ the stems go from yellow to pink to red along the stem
Above left – Acer nugundo ‘Winter lighting’ coppiced to promote new growth giving the coloured stems each year. Middle – Cornus ‘Amy’s Winter Orange’ Above right – Salix Alba ‘Yelverton’
To maintain the colourful stems, I prune all my shrubs in early March just as the buds start to swell and break. Now, there are two methods to the pruning and either will work well. You can cut back half of the oldest stems to the base each year so you keep some structure of the plant into the spring and early summer, whilst other plants nearby are busily growing, or you can choose to cut all the stems down to the base of the plant. Either way this form of hard pruning or coppicing stimulates new growth. As long as the new stems are less than three years old you will retain the wonderful colourful bark and stimulate growth.
A helpful tip is, when you do cut, stick pencil thick stems into the soil near the mother plant. This way they will root within the year making new plants which you can transfer in the autumn to a new location.
Places to visit RHS Wisley, Cambridge Botanical Gardens, Wakehurst Place, Kew Gardens