Plants with Colourful Stems

Trees and shrubs with colourful or interesting bark can be used like foliage trees and shrubs to help form the garden’s permanent, living framework. I am rather surprised that we see so little use made of plants with coloured bark in private gardens. We may see the odd shrubby dogwood or cornus with red or yellow stems, and perhaps a silver birch or two, but little else from the wide range available.

There are few better plants for winter colour in the garden than those with coloured bark and they associate particularly well with winter-flowering plants such as hamamelis or witch hazels, winter sweet or chimonanthus, the Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), winter-flowering heathers (Erica herbacea and Erica x darleyensis varieties), Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, the evergreen mahonias and Viburnum tinus.

Some look particularly pleasing near a pool, such as the red-stemmed salix or willows and the shrubby cornus, as well as Taxodium distichum, the swamp cypress. Others are superb in light woodland, like the Betula (birches) and Prunus serrula. Failing such ideal conditions, try them as specimen trees in a lawn where their attractive stems should be shown to advantage.

Plants with outstanding bark:

Acer hersii

This is one of the snake-bark maples, so called because the bark resembles a snake’s skin. It is a small tree, ideal for a small to average garden, and its trunk and branches are green, conspicuously striped with white. As a bonus, the leaves take on red autumn tints. Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’ This large shrub is popularly known as the coral bark maple because its young branches and twigs are bright coral-red, showing up particularly well in winter when the leaves have fallen, but not before they have turned soft yellow in autumn.


Several of the birches have beautiful silver or white bark. Others worth growing are B. ermanii, with creamy white bark which peels, often tinted with pink, and orange-brown branches, a large tree; B. ‘Jermyns’, a medium tree with creamy-white bark on the trunk but orange-brown on the branches. B. papyrifera, the paper birch, a large tree with brilliant white papery bark, and B. pendula, the common silver birch, a medium-sized tree with rough white bark. All marvellous trees which look particularly good with autumn-colouring trees and shrubs, and with rhododendrons and heathers. Corn us alba This is the red-barked dogwood, a medium-sized shrub which is best pruned almost to the ground in early spring each year to obtain the best colour. It forms thickets of red stems. Varieties (all best hard pruned) include ‘Kesselringii’ with purplish black bark and ‘Sibirica’.

Cornus stolonifera

‘Flaviramea’ of similar habit to above, again best hard pruned in early spring, but with deep yellow young shoots. All the shrubby corn us love wet soils and look particularly good by a pool.

Cryptomeria japonica

This is a large coniferous tree (the Japanese cedar). with most attractive reddish brown bark which peels off in strips. Only suitable for large gardens.

Eucalyptus gunnii

The most widely grown eucalyptus in the U.K.. eventually making a large tree, but can be kept as a shrub by hard pruning in early spring each year. However, if you cut it hard you will not get the full beauty of the bark, though its silver-blue juvenile leaves make it an excellent foliage plant. When grown as a tree the bark is at first pale green or cream, but later turns grey or greyish brown.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

This is the dawn redwood, a large tree and a deciduous conifer with orange or reddish-brown bark which peels off.

Primus serrula

Quite unlike most other ornamental cherries, the trunk and branches of this small tree look like polished mahogany, being glossy and reddish brown. An excellent tree for woodland or as a lawn specimen. It produces white flowers in spring.


It may come as a surprise to many people to learn that some of the brambles have beautiful bark. Rubus cockburnianus, a medium-sized shrub, has an arching habit of growth, with its purple stems thickly covered in a white waxy ‘bloom’. R. thibetanus, or its variety ‘Silver Fern’, is another medium-sized shrub with a purple-brown bark covered in blue-white ‘bloom’. Both these brambles are best cut back hard in early spring each year to encourage plenty of young shoots, which have the best colour.

Salix alba varieties

Some of the varieties of the white willow have highly coloured bark, like the scarlet willow. S. alba ‘Chermesina’. S. alba ‘Vitellina’, the golden willow, is also well worth growing, as it has bright, deep yellow young shoots. These willows would eventually make large trees, but are best grown as shrubs, as their young shoots display the best colour. There-fore, in early spring each year, cut them down to 30-90cm (1-3ft) from the ground. The stumps will send up thickets of new shoots. S. dciphnoides, the violet willow, with purple shoots covered with white ‘bloom’, can be treated in the same way. Taxodium distichum This is the swamp cypress, a large deciduous conifer with soft, shredding, reddish brown bark, ideal beside a pool or lake in large gardens.

Dead stems

This may seem an odd suggestion, but the dead stems of some plants can look most attractive in winter. Ornamental grasses, for instance, take on creamy, buff or beige tones when dead, so postpone cutting them back until early spring. The almost transparent seed pods of honesty (Lunaria biennis) are silvery and well worth keeping.

30. August 2013 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Plants & Trees | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Plants with Colourful Stems


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