Spotlight on Bark

Winter is the season for plants with colorful branches and bark

Winter is the season when you realize every garden should have at least three plants with great bark — one for color, one for texture and one for shape. Furthermore, these specimens not only provide winter interest, but should be beautiful all year.

With so many choices, we've selected a few that should charm.

Brightly colored twigs

The standard for great color and easy care are red and yellow dogwood. Winter is their season to shine, when these serviceable plants will provide a thicket of stunning branches to shield your view. Come summer, they will provide dense privacy screening. These affordable plants grow to about 6 to 8 feet tall and wide, attract few pests and are easy to care for if you can let them grow to their natural size. Pruning inspires new growth with bright colors.

Coral-bark Japanese maple 'Sango Kaku' provides equally stunning color, along with great fall color. This tree grows from 15 to 18 feet high.

"It's a shorter maple with a nice form," says Toni DeVenney, plant salesperson at Ray's Nursery in Ashland. "The cold turns the bark coral-red."

"People discount barberry, but it has a beautiful red twig with red berries and has great interest all year," says Don DeLongpre, nursery worker at Southern Oregon Nursery. Many varieties of barberry are available, with different growth habits and color displays — but it has thorns, so site it wisely.

If you are interested in edible landscaping, blueberries make a great color choice, as well, with brilliant red leaves and bark in fall and winter. The height varies, but some plants get quite large. Plant two varieties for the best fruit production.

Textured bark

Paperbark cherry is used to make picture frames, says DeLongpre. You might want to make art with its shedding bark, which peels off in luscious cherry-red sheaths. "It has tremendous white flowers in the spring."

The tree reaches about 20 feet high and is equally wide.

Madrone trees are natives with unusual texture and color. Their evergreen leaves make them a standout in the woods, says DeLongpre. It will have no trouble living here but does require excellent drainage. Very slow-growing, this tree may reach 100 feet. Sunset's "Western Garden Guide" suggests watering only enough to get it growing, then occasional deep watering.

Twists and Turns

An easier-to-handle relative of the madrone is the "strawberry tree" (Arbutus unedo). This shrub or standardized tree is best in the zone 8 parts of the valley, so elsewhere protect from extreme cold. It grows from 8 to 15 feet tall, with a rich brown shredding bark that twists and gnarls with age. It's named for its strawberry-like fruit, which birds love and people find bland.

Climbing hydrangea is another specimen with peeling bark and knotted branches of gray and rusty brown. This spring-flowering shrub likes afternoon shade and will climb two stories without a trellis. It does not damage the siding, as ivy or wisteria might, says DeVenney, "It can be espaliered, trellised or do its own thing."

You can do your own thing in your landscape, too, says DeVenney. "You can be just as creative about your landscape as you are with your living room." In general, plants that need close examination should be near pathways or at the edge of a border. Give colorful twigs a backdrop that will help illuminate their natural display. Twisted forms might make interesting subjects for up-lighting.

Leaves and flowers have our attention most of the year. Putting the spotlight on bark makes shopping for these plants one of the most fun things to do at a nursery. Dress warm and prepare to be delighted.


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