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Winter Colour - Interesting Bark & Tree Forms
by Brian Minter
by Brian Minter


Brian is President of Minter Country Garden, an innovative destination garden center and greenhouse growing operation. He is a gardening columnist, radio host, international speaker and author.

His website is located at

March 4, 2007

At this time of year anything we can do to make our landscapes more visually attractive really does make a difference in the amount of enjoyment we get from our gardens. Even if we only sit at the kitchen table and look out, a colourful winter garden can give us a lift, and with just a little creativity, we can create a lot of winter colour.

Let's start by taking a look at the bark and form of some special trees. During winter most deciduous trees are bare and brown. Birch trees, however, are fine winter specimens because of their light coloured bark, but keep in mind that some varieties are more showy than others. Betula pendula jacquemontii (Himalayan Birch) is perhaps the most brilliant, having the whitest bark I've ever seen. Surround it with white winter flowering heather to create a bit of winter magic.

One of my favourite winter trees is the flowering cherry, Prunus serrula. I keep recommending it year after year, but hardly anyone plants it! Once this cherry matures even a little, its winter bark becomes a brilliant shiny burgundy - it is truly spectacular. The bark is so shiny and smooth it’s hard not to rub your hands on the main stem.

One Japanese maple that really stands out is Acer griseum’ (or Paperbark Maple) with its reddish smooth peeling bark like an arbutus. One of the most brilliant is Acer ‘Sango Kaku’ (or Coral Bark Maple). It shines beautifully in a dark winterscape and lifts any garden.

Some of the most impressive colour though comes from bush dogwoods. Cornus alba 'Sibirica' and Cornus stolonifera have brilliant red twigs, and Cornus stolonifera 'Flaviramea' is a striking yellow-twigged dogwood. A newer variety, called 'Midwinter Fire', has orange and yellow stems and is truly breathtaking in winter. Use bush dogwoods in background areas and if possible, locate them near a reflecting pond to double your enjoyment. There are many other trees that have colourful winter bark, so why not do a little research?

The form of many trees can be particularly beautiful in winter. Pendulous trees, like Fagus sylvatica 'Pendula' (Weeping Beech) and weeping flowering cherries are very attractive in winter. The new weeping form of pussy willow, Salix caprea, is simply beautiful. With a light shining on it at night, it shimmers like a shower of silver catkins.

More and more berried weeping plants are now available. The many grafted forms of cotoneaster create unique winter focal points. Used in containers or as the centrepiece in a landscaped area, these plants not only add interesting colour and shape, but they also provide nourishment for birds when snow covers their regular food.

One thing to remember about weeping trees is the fact that their form forces your eyes to follow their branches to the ground. Underplanting around pendulous trees further enhances their attractiveness in winter. Depending upon the type of tree, you may wish to use colourful foliaged evergreens like Euonymus 'Blondy' or even winter-flowering heathers. Miniature azaleas or rhododendrons that change foliage colour to deep bronze in winter might be a consideration, as might evergreen perennials like heucheras, heucherellas and evergreen euphorbias. Even evergreen grasses, like Carex morrowii ‘Evergold’, truly create an amazing effect under trees. The point is to complement your weeping tree form with plants that are colourful in summer and winter.

Something we never really notice in summer is a tree's branch formation. In winter, however, branch forms can add real interest to your winter garden. Among my favourites are Japanese maples and flowering cherries. If you already have some in your yard, next time you prune them keep their shape in mind and encourage branches which will further enhance their lovely form. You can also make tree forms more visible by placing them in front of a light coloured fence or lattice.

The addition of some of these special plants can make all the difference to your winter garden.


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