Charles Day is Wave Hill’s Ruth Rea Howell Horticultural Interpreter.
Multi-stemmed willows and dogwoods are a colorful feature of the winter landscape at Wave Hill. They are especially striking when arranged in contrasting groups—as this planting bed in the image above demonstrates.
This treatment for garden purposes most likely arose from the European tradition of producing willow “withies”—long, pliable sticks, which grow in response to being cut back to a stump. Also called osiers, these shoots are harvested every year and used in basketry and for binding other materials, such as thatching of roofs. Withy beds, with their masses of upswept shoots, create an interesting effect, one that is easily recreated in a garden.
Ornamental selections of the most colorful willows have been made by gardeners and nurseries over many years. One of the finest is the coral bark willow (Salix alba ‘Chermesina’—also known as ‘Britzensis’—shown above). With masses of tall, reddish-orange shoots, it emanates a warming glow. The cool, lavender-gray stems of the sandbar willow (Salix irrorata—below) stand out in complete contrast, while the dry winter foliage of the nearby oriental spicebush (Lindera angustifolia) provides a lovely, pinkish-tan background.
Two other willows, Salix sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ and Salix sanguinea ‘Winter Flame’, brighten up spots elsewhere in the garden with their jaunty, orange-pink stems. ‘Midwinter Fire’, shown below on the left, has a spreading, suckering habit, providing an even row of stems that extends for several yards along one side of Wave Hill’s Lower Lawn. ‘Winter Flame’, shown below on the right, grows in tighter clumps and can be seen on the terraced beds of the Kerlin Overlook.
Certain dogwoods can be used in a similar way to the willows but they are a little less vigorous and are not pruned as severely. Older stems are cut out to promote new shoots but much of the younger growth is retained.
Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ (yellowtwig dogwood—shown above) is a variegated cultivar of redosier dogwood, a shrub native to eastern North America. It has creamy-edged leaves and clusters of white flowers in spring. Once the foliage falls away in fall, the stems show up an almost luminous greenish-yellow.
The Siberian dogwood has red stems and those of the cultivar Cornus alba ‘Westonbirt’ (below) are an intense carmine. They look spectacular here when set against a blanket of snow. This selection was made at Westonbirt, the UK’s National Arboretum in Gloucestershire.
Just before they are cut back in spring, the willows will reveal one more treat for us. The silky puffs of the male catkins—pussy willows—will open in March. Until then, we’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the varied hues of the winter display.