Plants for Winter Interest

As fall turns to winter many landscape plants lose their luster, becoming dull drab mounds or even skeletal remnants of their seasonal glory.  Many, but not all – look for these plant treasures that are at their peak appeal during the cold and grey months:

Winter Flowers – brighten up the dark and gloomy days with some tough plants that flower in the middle of winter!

Pansy (Viola spp.):  Dainty-looking but tough, these cool-season annuals come in an array of colors and patterns.  With just a little care they can bloom from fall through the winter and into the spring.

Winter Camellia (Camellia sasanqua, C. x williamsii, and C. heimalis): Evergreen shrubs for partial shade, with an abundance of relatively large flowers in pink, white or red.  Different varieties bloom at slightly different times – October for the earliest, with some of the later or longer blooming types still showing color in February – many are at peak between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Winter Mahonia (Mahonia x media): Large toothy evergreen foliage usually shows some bluish tinges; December to January flowers are pale yellow, prominent, and smell like roses!

Winter Viburnums (Viburnum x bodnantense, Viburnum tinus): Solid reliable shrubs for sun or partial shade.  Most viburnums bloom in mid or late spring; the deciduous Pink Dawn viburnum (V, x bodnantense) throws a few flowers at a time on naked branches starting in midwinter, then hits peak of bloom just before leaves emerge in spring.  Spring Bouquet (Viburnum tinus) is a smaller evergreen viburnum.  Buds are attractive late summer through the fall and winter, and open (also a few at a time) starting late winter and reaching peak in mid spring.

Sweet Box (Sarcococca spp.):  For shade (even deep and dry shade), these glossy leaved evergreens produce huge volumes of small white flowers in the coldest parts of winter – January to February.  Overwhelming scent; more fragrant than Daphne and a full month earlier.

Very late winter to very early spring blooms – Plants that bridge the season, after the winter camellias but before the forsythias and crocus

Hellebore (Helleborus spp.):  Hellebores have a wide range of bloom times; many early blooming varieties start in February.  Some are deciduous, but many keep their bold foliage through winter too.

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia): Large shrub/small tree sized plants, well known for their bright fall color leaves and for their spidery petal-less flowers on bare branches in February

Winter daphne (Daphne odora): At their best in morning sun but afternoon shade, Winter Daphne is loved for its tremendous display of very fragrant pink flowers from February into early March

Winter Bark Interest – The beauty of these trees and shrubs is revealed after the leaves drop.

Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.): Small shrubs, large shrubs, or small trees (depending on variety), they are best known for their bright flowers late summer to fall; but in winter the trunks provide a more subtle but no less attractive appeal.  Bark peels to reveal multi-tone under layers in shades of reddish-brown, tan, and cream.

River Birch (Betula nigra): Nice shade tree with an airy canopy and nice yellow fall leaf color.  River birch also sheds its bark in papery layers to show off tones of pinkish cream to cinnamon.  Unlike the stark white European and Himalayan birches, this tree is very resistant to borers.

Redtwig Dogwood (Cornus sericea, C. alba, and C. stolonifera): Largish shrubs that thrive in wetter environments, with twigs and branches of intense red, orange, or yellow (depending on variety).  Color is on newer growth, for best show prune back regularly to encourage vigorous regrowth.

Winter foliage – while it’s always nice to have leaves year-round, many evergreens are just that in the winter – blobs of indifferent green.  Here are a few of the many evergreens with more foliage interest

Conifers are the first thing that comes to mind for many people when they hear ‘evergreen’.  Texture and shape/form provide some of the interest in conifers, but many have striking colors as well – some year round, others only in winter.  Here are just a few of the more interesting options:
Bonna Scoth Pine
Winston Churchill False Cypress

Euonymus (Euonymus spp.) – Medium shrubs, some of the smaller forms make good groundcover.  Reliable and tough, leaves are splotched or edged in cream, white, yellow, or gold (depending on variety).  Suitable for partial shade or full sun.  Many, many types – I recommend E. japonicus ‘Silver Queen’, E. japonicus ‘Chollipo’, E. japonicus microphyllus ‘Butterscotch’, and E. fortunei ‘Moonglow’

Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica): – small or medium shrubs with dense leaves but fine texture.  Mostly green foliage in summer, as the weather cools the leaves brighten to shades of yellow, red, orange, or deep burgundy (depending on variety) – but don’t drop, keeping those colors for the entire winter.  Again, there are many varieties available – I like  ‘Lemon Twist’, ‘Plum Passion’, ‘Flirt’, and ‘Firepower’

Other interest: – Some winter interest plants defy being placed in a specific category.

Contorted filbert (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) – Branch texture and structure can provide surprisingly effective aesthetics.  Contorted filbert (also known as Contorted Hazelnut or Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick) has some of the most intricately twisted branches in the shrub world, though they are fairly well concealed during the growing season by the coarse foliage.  As if the branches alone weren’t enough winter attraction, it is also a winter bloomer – though not as dramatic as many of the above plants, the greenish-yellow drooping catkins are present from January through February.  For additional multi-season appeal, look for the red leafed variety Corylus avellana ‘Red Dragon’.

~ Darren Morgan