Winter Trees and Shrubs

Careful selection and placement of a few of these plants can work wonders to liven up the gloomy landscape. For smaller city gardens, a couple of shrubs and a climber with good winter colour would be the way to go.

Brighten up the darkest days of the year with the help of trees and shrubs with unique bark colours and textures

In British Columbia we are indeed fortunate to have such an agreeable climate that allows us to grow a broad palette of interesting plants. And even though our winters tend to be extremely grey, so many of our beautiful trees and shrubs reveal gorgeous barks once their foliage has gone, bringing welcome colour and texture to the garden. Careful selection and placement of a few of these plants can work wonders to liven up the gloomy landscape. For smaller city gardens, a couple of shrubs and a climber with good winter colour would be the way to go.

Red osier dogwood
Red osier dogwood
Image: Noel Zia Lee / Flickr

Cornus stolonifera, more commonly known as red osier dogwood, is native to eastern North America and a real winner of a shrub. It’s a suitable choice for soils that tend to stay damp or even become waterlogged during heavy winter rains.

In summer, its stems are covered with darkish-green ovate leaves growing to 13 centimetres in length, while its stems are a dark red. Overall height varies depending on how it is pruned, but if left unpruned, this dogwood can grow to two metres in height and width. If you have a spot that suits this shrub well, look out for the named cultivars.

The best for stem colour is ‘Isanti,’ with its brilliant-red stems that become even more pronounced if pruned back hard to the ground in late winter or early spring. Such drastic pruning encourages strong new shoots from the base, which is always the brightest shade during its first winter.
If red is not your favourite winter colour, then look for the cultivar ‘Flaviramea,’ which has bright yellow-green winter shoots. Prune this one in the same way as for ‘Isanti,’ and its vivid hue will lift your spirits on the darkest days of the year.

At VanDusen Botanical Garden both of these cultivars grow at the edge of the pond, along with a beautiful willow, Salix alba subsp. Vitellina, which in its native habitat of Europe to North Africa is a tree reaching 25 metres. It features typically narrow willow-like foliage in the growing season and the brightest orange shoots during winter. The VanDusen gardeners never allow it to develop into a full tree, but always prune it back as for the dogwoods, to ensure that its incredible orange new branches fairly glow during winter rains. Just one last note about these long whippy shoots.
All three of these plants were traditionally used for weaving baskets, as their new lengthy and pliable stems are perfect for this purpose – something you might like to try after pruning them back.

Hydrangea Hydrangea
Image: Ctd 2005 / Flickr

The climber that I find looks really interesting in winter (and I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder) is the climbing hydrangea, Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris. This is the one with the white lacecap-type flowers in summer and large ovate leaves growing to 11 centimetres with heart-shaped bases. Its stems have short aerial roots with which they cling onto whatever they happen to be climbing on.
This shade-tolerant climber comes to us from Asia and is hardy to zones 4 to 8. Be careful where you grow it; avoid stucco walls as the plant’s clinging roots will tear away the stucco when it is moved or pruned. It works far better on old stumps or the trunks of evergreen hemlock trees. When its leaves have dropped in fall, all the old, warm, brown skeleton flowerheads are left framing glimpses of the current new stems, which are a handsome, shiny orange/brown colour that I find most pleasing. And this beauty is only enhanced by late fall’s dewy cobwebs and winter hoar frost – such are winter moments in the garden.

Paperbark Maple
Paperbark Maple
Image: Art Poskanzer / Flickr

One of my favourite winter-interest trees is Acer griseum, the paperbark maple. This is a charming yet little-known, slow-growing tree native to central China and hardy to zones 4 to 8. Books tell us that its height at maturity is 10 metres, but believe me, it takes awhile to get there. This maple has a lovely, rounded top habit that closely resembles the perfect trees we drew as children.

The paperbark maple’s leaves are unlike the familiar typical maple leaves in that they are trifoliate leaflets three to eight centimetres in length and lobulate, in an attractive dark-green hue that turns orangy-red in the fall. It is, however, the bark that draws the eye with its orange-brown colouring and peeling texture, lending this tree its apt common name. We have three fine specimens out at the UBC Botanical Garden. One on the lower path in the Asian Garden is placed just right to catch the low winter sunshine, which causes the tree to light up, as if set on fire.
[pagebreak]One other favourite maple of mine is Acer davidii (Père David’s maple), named for the famous French missionary Armand David, a born naturalist who during the 1890s in China discovered many new plants, birds and animals.  Native to China, of course, and hardy in zones 5 to 8, this maple reaches up to 15 metres at maturity. It has a rather spreading, graceful habit. Its leaves are mid-green, growing to 15 centimetres in length, ovate and sometimes shallow-lobed and sometimes not.

Amur Cherry
Amur Cherry
Image: D’Arcy Norman / Flickr

Its bark is stunning, with streaks of green and white that are even more pronounced when the tree is planted among other (particularly evergreen) trees that provide partial shade at various times throughout the day. After the leaves have fallen the whole tree takes on a rather ghost-like appearance, and if there is light snow, its white stripes glow as if the tree were lit from within.

One day, if I ever get a garden of my own, I will plant one of these and naturalize drifts of snowdrops around its base! Admittedly, this one is a bit large for the average home garden, but if you have room and the right location, give it a try.

There is an absolutely wonderful winter-bark tree only suitable for areas of the province where the season is cold and frosty. It is Prunus maackii, commonly called Amur cherry, and comes to us from northeastern Asia and is hardy to zones 3 to 8. This cherry forms a conical tree to 10 metres in height with typical ovate, dark-green, cherry-type leaves that turn a fine yellow before dropping in the fall to reveal bark and branches of a gorgeous bright-cinnamon colour. These are so smooth and shiny that they cry out to be touched and feel like silk under one’s hands. Because of its hardiness, the Amur cherry is a perfect candidate for the Peace River area of our province. This tree will grow on the coast, of course, but because of our damper climate the bark is much more ridged and becomes covered in lichen, causing the entire smooth effect to be lost.

Prunus Serrula
Prunus serrula
Image: wlcutler / Flickr

For coastal gardens the best substitute would be another cherry, Prunus serrula, which comes to us from western China and is hardy to zone 6. It forms a nicely rounded tree 10 metres in height and width. The leaves are a typical cherry-like lance shape and a good dark green, turning a pleasant golden colour in fall. The bark is a gorgeous coppery brown, stained like Prunus maackii, except its smoothness is nicely interrupted and patterned by rougher areas. The colour is so rich and pronounced during wet weather that it will catch the eye immediately.

Birches have long been admired for their bark, and again our North American native species like Betula papyrifera (paper birch) tend to have crisper, clearer winter bark in the colder areas of the province.

Paper Birch
Image: Muffet / Flickr

However, a good choice for the coast is the Chinese paper birch (Betula albosinensis), which is again quite a large tree reaching 25 metres. During summer it has drooping, ovate, glossy leaves that grow to eight centimetres and turn a handsome shade of yellow in fall. Younger trees are stunning, as their peeling orange-brown bark reveals a pure-white surface that in the early years is covered with glaucous bloom. This peeling bark is magical at any age, however, revealing a pure-white colour that eventually turns darker yellow with age.

Equally stunning is B. albosinensis var. septentrionalis, which has rather duller foliage but beautiful, peeling, pinkish to orange-brown bark. Both of these are hardy to zones 5 to 8.

One last pick is B. utilis var. jacquemontii, the well-known Himalayan birch, which is hardy to zone 5. It produces the whitest bark, rivalling that of our native North American birches, and is totally unaffected or dulled by coastal rains. Of course, there are many more trees and shrubs that can add winter interest to your garden. But these are definitely my favourites.

David Tarrant is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Spring, currently on HGTV.