I said I would do a blog on colorful twigs since I ran out of space and time when I tried to cover both berries and twigs the first time. The next couple of months these plants will be their best. The cold weather has really brought out the color in their stems. Admittedly I wasn’t too thrilled about tromping through a foot of snow to get the images, but just like when I used to have to go out and feed the cows in winter, once outside I rather enjoyed the time. I do miss the cows at times, especially later in spring when it would have been prime calving time. I just loved the birthing season. By the way, that birthing scene in City Slickers? TOTALLY fake. Just so you know. Anyway, now is the time when we need a little color in the garden. I mean the Sutphin Fountain is perfectly lovely this time of year.
But I need some color! These deciduous shrubs with yellow, orange, green, or red stems provide it like nothing else in the middle of a Midwest winter and are a hardy easy to grow group of plants. The colors really pop against snow or evergreens but are excellent in any situation. Don’t be afraid to cut a few to bring indoors too.
The first plant I want to mention is a willow. Yes, a willow. Not a weeping willow though they can have nice twigs as well. This is Salix alba ‘Britzensis’, the coral bark willow.
It can become a tree of considerable size. But as with the other shrubs in this article, the best color is on the younger growth so you want to be cutting them back on a regular basis. Usually that means cutting out about one third of the old growth annually. ‘Britzensis’ grows so fast you can cut the whole plant to the ground in early spring and have an 8 foot shrub by late summer. It doesn’t need to be in a wet area but avoid super dry sites. In this photo of the base of the plant notice where it has been cut back in previous years. The older the stems, the weaker the color.
Another shrub that isn’t always chosen for its winter twig color is Kerria japonica, Japanese kerria (aren’t common names clever?). Kerria is grown mostly for the bright golden yellow flowers covering it in April. In the winter, when anything other than white, brown, or gray is in desperately short supply, these green twigs are a welcome sight. This is the only shrub in the blog that grows well in both sun and shade. The cultivar ‘Kincan’ has lots of yellow striping on the twigs. It’s very nice. Here’s a group of the cultivar ‘Golden Guinea’ planted near the back side of the Toby.
The majority of the shrubs we grow for the color of their stems are in the genus Cornus, generally referred to as the “twig dogwoods” – redtwig, yellowtwig, etc. Multiple species are in this group and you can also find them with white or yellow variegated leaves for even more seasons of interest, even solid chartreuse leaves (always my fave). As a general rule however these are grown for the winter interest they provide. All produce the best color in sunny sites. For yellow twigs there’s Cornus alba ‘Bud’s Yellow’ near the entrance to the Greenhouse.
In Nonie’s Garden is the bright red Cornus sericiea ‘Cardinal’ looking really sharp right now.
And then there is my favorite. This one is yellow, orange, coral, and pink – Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’.
Under good conditions the twig dogwoods can put on 3-4 feet of growth in a year. Stems over 2 years old on any of these are noticeably duller. In this shot you can see clearly where the new growth occurred last year. These were trimmed high to maintain a bit of screening function. It’s a practice you won’t to attempt very often. You would soon have 4 feet of dull gray topped with 18 inches or so of bright color.
I said earlier these are tough plants. As living proof here’s one surviving another Indiana winter in a container. Not a place for a delicate little boo-boo-baby plant.
That’s it for this week. Try to get out to the gardens and enjoy the Winter show.
Filed under: Horticulture