A good way to introduce color to your garden in the winter is to grow shrubs with brightly colored twigs. Some species and cultivars of Cornus (dogwood) and Salix (willow), in particular, form strikingly colored branches in winter. Interestingly, the bright colors only develop in the fall as the shrubs lose their leaves. For the rest of the year the stems are, typically, either green or brown colored.
The best color is found on young growth so gardeners usually cut back the shrubs severely in early spring, every year to every three years, to encourage new growth over the summer. This practice is known as coppicing. You should wait for two years after planting new shrubs before doing this. There will be some loss of flowers and fruit following pruning but they are considered secondary to winter twig display.
Most of these attractive plants grow as multi-stemmed shrubs. Both dogwood and willows are easy to grow. They tolerate moist soil. Grow them against a bank of dark, evergreen shrubs (e.g. yew) or in mixed groups with varied stem colors for the most vivid display effect. Not surprisingly, the strong colors also look great in the snow.
Dogwoods shrubs have both flower and berry but are grown primarily for their attractive stems in winter and sometimes for their fall leaf color. They are a great feature in a winter landscape and also do well grouped as an informal border. Not fussy about soil, Cornus alba can even tolerate some occasional standing water as well as partial shade.
These plants grow quickly and can spread by underground root; Cornus alba spreads less than Cornus sanguinea. (You can cut back the root to contain spread). They are tolerant of deer. The shrubby dogwoods are generally more disease tolerant than their tree relatives. While Cornus alba is still susceptible to a range of diseases, particularly when the plant is stressed, this is a greater problem in more southern regions and less of a problem in the cooler zones, 7 and lower, of our area. Good plant culture and hygiene substantially reduce the risk.
Cornus alba (Tatarian dogwood)
Native to Manchuria, Siberia and N, Korea and hardy in USDA Zones 4 - 7. Here are a few of the most interesting cultivars.
‘Elegantisima’ (the preferred name is in dispute and is also found in nurseries as 'Argenteomarginata'): An advantage of this cultivar is that in addition to the red winter stems it has variegated leaves with white margins. As it is variegated, full sun is best for leaf color. The rosy red fall leaf color is an additional attraction.
‘Kesselringii’: This variety has red stems, which turn a deep purple-black in winter as well as purple-tinged young leaves. The red-purple autumn leaf color and generous fruit are assets.
‘Sibirica’: This is one of the most spectacular of the red-twigged dogwoods. Its winter stems are a bright coral red color. It produces attractive blue-ish fruits that birds love. Unfortunately, specimens purchased from nurseries vary considerably in their characteristics, with some being more impressively red than others.
Cornus sanguinea (bloodtwig dogwood)
Native to Europe and hardy in Zone 3 - 7. This species is more spreading and lax in appearance than Cornus alba. Fall leaf color is frequently less vibrant but the winter twig color of some cultivars is very unique and attractive. Cornus sanguinea has no typical disease risks.
'Anny’s Winter Orange’: A vigorous dogwood with bright orange twigs in winter with red tips. This cultivar has the advantage that the stems are colored even when the shrub is not pruned. Color deepens with colder temperatures. Grow in full sun for the best twig color.
'Midwinter Fire': Zones 4 to 7 only. Winter twigs are golden yellow at the base grading to red towards the tip of the branches. Its purple berries are attractive to birds and the golden fall leaf color is a lovely bonus.
‘Magic Flame’: Similar to “Midwinter Fire’ but autumn leaves are orange and red, and it does not sucker as profusely.
‘Compressa’: A dogwood with a very unusual, columnar form and densely crowded branches. The darks green, wrinkled leaves turn burgundy red in autumn and fall to reveal red stems.
‘Cato’ ARCTIC SUN™: A compact (3 to 4 ft.) shrub grown for its bright yellow branches tipped with orange in winter. Golden fall leaves and white fruit attractive to birds are secondary attributes.
Cornus sericea (red osier dogwood)
Native to North American wetland areas and hardy in USDA Zones 2 - 7. Formerly named C. stolonifera, this species spreads rapidly through stolons. Suckers should be removed and roots trimmed if spread is not desired. It is susceptible to a range of pests and leaf and twig diseases.
‘Farrow’ ARCTIC FIRE™: A dwarf form (3 - 4 ft) with beautiful dark red/ scarlet twigs. Does not spread like most of the species.
‘Cardinal’: A particularly fast-growing shrub that produces outstanding red-colored stem in the winter. Cream-colored flowers in the spring attract butterflies. White berries form in the fall and are soon eaten by birds. The fall foliage is also attractive, being a burgundy-red.
C. sericea subsp. occidentallis ‘Sunshine’: A larger shrub (10 - 12 ft.) with yellow-green leaves and burgundy-red twigs in the winter.
‘Flaviramea’ (goldentwig dogwood): Unlike most of the dogwoods, this variety forms stunning, bright yellow, winter branches. Small white flowers yield to white fruit; golden leaves in the fall.
‘Silver and Gold’: An outstanding dogwood with the twin benefits of yellow stems in winter and strongly variegated leaves.
There a number of willows that can be grown to take advantage of colored stems. As with dogwoods, willows need to be cut back severely each spring to produce new growth with good color. Salix alba is known as white willow and was brought by early, European settlers to the US where it has now become naturalized.
Willows prefer to be grown in moist soil and are deer resistant. Most are quite hardy (USDA Zones 2 - 8).
Salix alba var. vitellina (golden willow): Bright yellow stems that can grow by as much as 8 feet in a season
Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’ (coral bark willow): Red or orange-red bark on a fast growing plant. May be grown as a multistemmed shrub or a small tree, pollarded for bright, winter color.
Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Yelverton’: The stems of this excellent cultivar are brilliant red at their ends grading to orange or yellow at their bases, depending upon the amount of light in which they grow.
Salix irrorata (bluestem willow): This unusual willow is a native of the western United States. Its red stems become covered in a white bloom as the season progresses that gives them a bluish appearance. Only USDA zones 4 to 8.
Salix x sepulcralis‘Erythroflexuosa’ (twisted willow): Deciduous shrub with year round interest due to the contorted stems that are tinted orange-red as long as shrub is cut back regularly. The vase shape of the plant is also pleasing. USDA Zones 5b - 7 only.