January brings heavy frosts and snow, or at least it used to do before our climate became so unpredictable. With winters wetter than they used to be, these days it seems we’re just as likely to get a cold and soggy start to the year. Whichever way it goes, there’s no denying the garden is looking rather bare, and we have to look harder to find something interesting to admire.
This is where plants with attractive bark come into their own. The main attraction of the Tibetan Cherry Tree (Prunus serrula) is its smooth and shiny conker-coloured bark that starts to peel away in winter revealing the new lighter bark beneath. As a bonus, it also bears white flowers in spring followed by small oval fruits. It’s a slow-grower, and not for a small garden as it will eventually reach 6 x 5m, but given enough space, it’s glorious.
The silver birch family is large and the one thing they all have in common is outstanding bark. Betula utilis var. jacquemontii has exceptionally white and luminous bark which lights up a dark corner. All birches have leaves that turn golden in autumn, and a light canopy of leaves that offers dappled shade. Again, a substantial tree that can reach 10 x 5m.
On a smaller scale the stems of Dogwoods are brightest in winter, ranging in colour from bright red through to orange and pink. These easy to grow shrubs have a spreading habit, are tolerant of wet conditions and come in at a manageable 1.2 x 1.2m. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ has orange-red and yellow young shoots, and small white flowers in summer. The most important thing to remember with Dogwoods is to cut out the oldest stems at the end of winter.