Colourful winter stems

Posted: Monday 30 January 2012
by James Alexander-Sinclair

High on the list of good things about winter sunshine is the way it shows off the colourful winter stems of willows.

willow bud on a stem

As I write this, the sun is shining brightly, while there is still frost on the ground. I realise that by the time you get round to reading these words it may be dull and drizzly, but bear with me.

Winter sunshine may not be very warm, but it certainly cheers things up a bit. (On the downside, it can make driving hazardous, and it shows how very dirty my office windows have become.)

High on the list of good things about winter sunshine is the way it shows off the colourful winter stems of willows. Every garden book about winter colour mentions colourful stems and they are bang on the money every time.

At the RHS Garden at Wisley there is a corner of a pond that is planted with various willows, Cornus (dogwoods), and the interlaced stems of the wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius). It is well worth the journey time even if you live on Orkney. However you don’t have to go to a garden to see willows, those growing wild by riverbanks are no slouches with the right light behind them.

On a smaller scale, I have a line of willows running along a bank by my fruit trees. For much of the year, although calling them dull would be unkind, they do nothing to inspire poetry. They do their job (which is to obscure a fence) well enough, but that is about it, until we get a day like today when the sun hits their yellowy green twigs and all that summer dreariness is forgiven.

I think the best willows for winter stem colour are:

Salix alba var. vitellina – which is the one I have. It has greeny-yellowy-orangey stems (apologies for the inept description but they are all of those colours).

Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britenzis’ – this is what my willows were supposed to be but the wrong variety was delivered. ‘Britzensis’ is much more fiery and orange.

And for a bit of contrast:

Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’ – which has black catkins with visible brick-red anthers.

The younger stems are always the most colourful (isn’t that always the way?) So prune shrubs with colourful stems back in the spring to encourage as much young growth as possible before next winter.

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Talkback: Colourful winter stems
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happymarion 31/01/2012 at 12:29

I have Salix niger with really black stems and two alpine willows, a Chinese one that has catkins in the summer and a Japanese one that has fat stumpy catkins so different from our pussy- willow or grey willow. But I do love the huge pussy willow in my garden when it is covered in catkins and the insects do too. one of my friends has just given me a cutting of Salix lanata which I am looking forward to as its one stem and tiny branches are a beautiful dark burgundy.

Samuel. 31/01/2012 at 19:44

I am currently working on and idea of combining darker Salix and Cornus varieties with Juncus effusus. The rush is quite prolific in the garden I am working on so rather than fight the brave sturdy things I'm hoping to make the best of their inky green and add plants with a similar winter form hence coppiced Salix and various Cornus probably siberica or elegantissima not that there's a huge difference between the two. The soil which is ideal for the rush (a heavy heavy brick orange clay) should work with the others and I am hoping that the rush should cover the ground enough to hold moisture during the summer as the it is prone to baking.

davids10 13/02/2012 at 21:57

in the afternoon the westering sun lights up a combination of cornus flaviramea with the red stems of a rugosa rose in front backed with the silvery bark of magnolia liliaflora-very tasty

Stella Harding 15/02/2012 at 11:17

I'm a contemporary basketmaker and I use of lot of colourful winter prunings from my own and friends' gardens in my work. It gives an added incentive to do the job and makes the pruning more pleasureable once you know you can make something beautiful and useful with the stems. My dream is to create a 'basketry garden' full of wonderful willows (such as the burgundy Salix lanata mentioned by happymarion below), dogwoods, phormiums, clematis, vines and even herbaceous plants like crocosmia and day lilies. It would be colourful, productive and tidy! all year round. Stella Harding 18/02/2012 at 17:14

Whilst blueberries don't have quite such good stems as Cornus or Salix they are not a bad red, the autumn colour is good and you can eat blueberries!