December 2018

Brilliant winter stems


Grey and dull, bleak and chill, skeletal structures dominate the winter landscape. After leaf fall, most deciduous woody plants remain steely, saving their spectacle for the spring. In this environment, the vivid bark colour of some shrubs, striking against a stormy sky or shafts of low winter sunlight, stand out with startling brilliance.



Our native Cornus or dogwood has hard, strong, straight stems. The common name is derived from dagwood, a skewer often made from these stems. Otzi, a mummified hunter discovered in the mountains on the Austrian/Italian border and 5,300 years old, had dogwood arrows found with him. They were once considered a good hedging plant but are now rarely planted as they are slow to colonise, finding dogwoods in a hedge indicates that it may be over 500 years old. Dogwoods are hardy, often found in moist ground as an understory plant in woodland but they are tolerant and adapt well to most soils and conditions. The bright stem colour develops in young stems as the cool weather develops, intensifying after the first frosts. Despite flourishing in the shade the stem colour is more intense when grown in full sun. Colour is lost with age so coppicing, cutting at least 1/3 of the oldest stems 5-7cm from the ground in early spring each year will produce a new crop of strong, glowing shoots for the following winter.


Cultivars of the shrubby native Cornus have been developed to enhance the plants natural ability to pigment the bark with rich colour. Cornus sanguniea ‘Midwinter Fire’ rises flame like from a yellow base through orange to coral red tips. Cornus alba ‘Siberica’ has vibrant crimson stems which shine a deep pink in bright sunlight. Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ has coal black stems with a hint of purple.


Later in the year dogwoods produce clusters of small white flowers attractive to bees and hoverflies, followed by small dark purple fruits or drupes which are loved by the starlings that gather in flocks in the areas dogwoods grow naturally. The fresh, young leaves provide fodder for green hairsteak and holly blue butterflies. In the autumn the leaves turn yellow and red before falling to reveal the colouring stems.



Salix alba is found naturally in damp ground along the banks of rivers and streams. The undersides of the narrow, bright green leaves are very pale giving the tree the common name of white willow. The trees can grow to 25 meters, with deeply fissured bark and long, flexible, grey brown stems. The stems are used widely in basketry, cribs or swills for animal feed, fish traps, wattle and daub walls, coracles and drawing charcoal, the timber being used for shingles, cart sides and the rims of pales. The pinkish under bark of white willow has also traditionally been used as a mild painkiller and is where aspirin was originally derived from. The stems of both willow and dogwood grow easily from pencil thick cuttings merely placed in a trench. In a year they will develop a good root system and be ready to replant. The poet Alexander Pope is said to have taken a willow stem that was used to tie a parcel for Lady Suffolk. Plunged into the ground it grew and thrived. All England’s weeping willow trees are reputed to be descendants of this one tree. This ability, to reproduce easily and grow fast, has led the willow to symbolize renewal and growth.


There are several cultivars breed from Salix alba for strong stem colour. Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’ has brilliant orange red stems. Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Golden Ness’ has glowing golden yellow stem and Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Yelverton’ has bright red orange stems. In spring the tassel like catkins of white willows provide nectar for pollinating insects. Wood ants feast on honeydew produced by the aphids that colonise the trees and the caterpillars of puss moth, willow ermine, eyed hawk moth and red underling feed on the foliage. All willows are very thirsty and should therefore be planted judiciously with plenty of space and where they can not damage buildings or riverbanks.



Rubus are a group of brambly plants with prickly stems and rose like flowers followed by berries. Rubus cockburnianus is a vigorous briar with arching crimson purple stems, clusters of small pink flowers and purple black fruit. Know as white stemmed bramble, in the wild it is found in forests, thickets and riverbanks in China. The cultivar Rubus cockburnianus ‘Goldenvale’ is grown for its winter stems. The bright yellow leaves fall in autumn to reveal a tangle of arching, chalk white stems, blushed with the purple bark beneath the bloom and dazzling against a dark backdrop. Rubus thibetanus or ghost bramble grows in dry ravines, thickets and woodland borders in China. The cultivar Rubus thibetanus ‘Siver Fern’ is a a graceful briar with green grey foliage, arching, prickly, purple shoots, small purplish flowers and black fruits. The purple stems have a silvery white bloom in winter.


The distinctive colours of the stems of all these plants resonate on a dreary day, shining boldly in the wintry sun and lifting the gloom of a winter’s scene.