Show-stopping stems and bark

Easily overlooked in the warmer months, barks and stems really come into their own in winter

Sizzling dogwood stems can create arresting effects and peeling, smooth or patterned bark adds texture and beauty on even the dullest of days. Here, Curators and Head Gardeners at six RHS Partner Gardens share some outstanding choices for unforgettable displays.

Cornus Midwinter FireCornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'

This robust, low-maintenance cornus is well worth growing for its wonderful, vigorous layers of orange, red and yellow stems. It is fast-growing but with a compact habit to about 1m (3ft), making it suitable for home gardens.

To get the best effects, I would recommend growing against a dark backdrop – perhaps conifers – and position so that the sun can shine through the stems, bringing out vivid effects. Plant at 50–75cm spacings and then cut back the stems to about 10cm (4in) in mid- to late-spring.
Rhoderic Taylor, Curator, The Lovell Quinta Arboretum, Cheshire

Tasmannia lanceolataPrunus serrula (Tibetan cherry)

Bodnant’s Winter Garden puts on fine displays. One of the stars of the show is Prunus serrula. This small tree carries white blossom in spring and bears yellow foliage and red berries in autumn, but it really comes into its own in winter when the bronze, peeling bark shines like silk against a blue winter sky.

In our Winter Garden several specimen trees are planted against a backdrop of evergreen shrubs, swaying ornamental grasses such as Miscanthus sinesis ‘Starlight’ and underplanted with rich red Bergenia purpurascens 'Irish Crimson'.
– Fran Llewellyn, Gardener, Bodnant Garden, Conwy

Acer griseum barkAcer griseum (paperbark maple)

This beautiful medium-sized tree brings 'wow' factor to the garden with its papery orange/red bark that peels back to reveal an irresistibly smooth surface beneath. It is a real garden all-rounder, because the tree also has wonderful autumn colour and grows slowly, making it suitable for smaller gardens. It can also be grown as a multi-stemmed specimen.

This is an adaptable, unfussy species growing happily in different soils across different parts of the arboretum – you can find examples in our Autumn Bays and in the Bark Park. As with all trees, don't forget aftercare is important, especially for the first few years. Mulch well to keep moisture in, especially in hot summers, feed annually, and stake if planting in an exposed position.
Faith Douglas, Curator, Thorp Perrow Arboretum and Woodland Garden, North Yorkshire

Tasmannia lanceolataTasmannia lanceolata (Australian pepper)

This underrated Chilean species is seldom seen in gardens. Given some shelter from the wind and coldest areas it is one of the most beautiful evergreens. In a sheltered spot with moist soil it can grow quite large in time, but on our sandy soil it is very slow growing. I always enjoy its red tipped stems which are subtle but beautiful. Small white flowers are borne April-May (pictured). 

In our winter garden we like its upright neat habit and use it to provide transition upwards to a stand of birches. We also combine the red stems with Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens'. Requiring little or no pruning, Tasmannia lanceolata looks good all year long and deserves wider recognition.
– Elliott Forsyth, Head Gardener, Cambo Gardens, Fife

Cornus Baton RougeCornus alba Baton Rouge ('Minbat')

Since 2007 when it was first introduced from France, Cornus alba Baton Rouge ('Minbat') has established itself as the number one red dogwood. Selected for its slightly more compact, bushy habit but still attaining a height of 1m (3ft) or more C. alba Baton Rouge ('Minbat') offers not only fabulous winter colour but has white flowers in spring, blueish-white berries in late summer and a striking display of reddish-purple foliage in autumn.

Use in wet soils - better still, plant so that the bright winter stems are reflected in water. Here, Beth Chatto's favourite combination is to underplant red-stemmed dogwoods with snowdrops such as Galanthus 'James Backhouse' or double Galanthus nivalis 'Flore Pleno', which does well in damper areas.

Its more compact habit lends itself to use in winter containers, underplanted with grasses such as variegated Carex or Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' along with early bulbs, primroses and hellebores. Once established, hard pruning each March, just as the buds are breaking, will ensure a regular supply of those colourful winter stems.
– David Ward, Head Gardener, The Beth Chatto Gardens, Essex

Acer tegmentosum barkAcer tegmentosum (snakebark maple)

This is one of the best snakebarks for stem colour with superb jade and silver striated bark, complemented in winter by striking mahogany coloured buds. The stem colour is good even on reasonably mature stems.

Very hardy indeed but best in a position sheltered from strong winds (as it also has very attractive large leaves and good autumn colour). Ideally the stems look best in a sunny spot but against a dark backdrop, where the silver really stands out. A. tegmentosum works in most soils but does not like ground which is too wet or waterlogged.
– Robert Vernon, Owner, Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery, South Derbyshire

Charming winter plants

See some further advice on trees and shrubs with attractive bark and stems.

Find out about planting different birch trees in winter, for a variety of beautiful bark.

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