Q. What can I plant in my garden to provide winter interest?
Carefully selected trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials can add interest to your garden in winter. Here in the New York area we emphasize northern plants; for southern gardens the choice is much larger.
Evergreen conifers are obvious choices for a winter garden. Moreover, when planted as hedges they can add form and architectural interest. For a smaller garden, dwarf varieties of many trees and shrubs are available. A few deciduous trees also retain their dead leaves for at least a part of the winter and can make attractive hedges. Beech (Fagus spp.) is an outstanding example.
Trees with decorative bark
A number of trees have attractive bark; this feature becomes more obvious in winter.
- Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) has attractive bark and has the advantage of flowering in late winter/early spring.
- Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.) is usually regarded as a southern tree (Zones 7-9), but hybrids that can grow in colder climates are now available. Crape myrtles range from tree to shrub size.
- Himalayan birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) is an attractive tree with the whitest bark of any tree.
- Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamillia) has reddish-brown exfoliating bark. Its beautiful early summer flowers are an additional bonus.
- A number of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), particularly ‘Bihou’ and ‘Sago kaku’ varieties, have beautifully colored bark in winter.
- Paper bark maple (Acer griseum) has highly ornamental, peeling, orange-brown bark.
- Three-flowered maple (Acer triflorum) has peeling, light brown bark.
- Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana)is a full sized tree, not for the small garden.
- Persian parrotia (Parrotia persica) has peeling, grayish bark and small red flowers in early spring.
- River birch (Betula nigra) is more resistant to beech borer damage than other birch species. Multi-stemmed forms are particularly attractive. ‘Heritage’ is an outstanding cultivar. ‘Dura Heat’ is preferred in warmer regions.
- Seven-sun flower (Heptacodium miconioides) is a small tree relatively new to the nursery trade that can be a beautiful addition to the small garden.
Trees with colorful fruit
Several tree species have colorful berries that persist in winter(until eaten by birds and squirrels!).
- Crabapples (Malus spp.) come in many species and varieties with colorful fruits, tolerating a wide range of growing conditions (Zones 4–10).
- Hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) usually has fierce thorns, but a thornless variety (C. crus-galli var. inermis) is available.
- Igiri tree (Idesia polycarpa) is a beautiful tree from the Far East not commonly found in American gardens. This species is dioecious.
Shrubs with brightly colored stems
- Red twig or red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea, C. stonolifera and C. sanguinea). C. sericea 'Farrow' (Arctic Fire) is a particularly bright red form. C. sanguinea 'Midnight Fire' is also popular. These shrubs are very dramatic in snow, when bright red twigs stand out vividly. Young branches have brighter color, so these shrubs should be cut back in late winter to encourage new growth in spring.
- Tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba). An interesting variegated variety (‘Elegantissima’) is available.
- Yellow twig dogwood (C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’) is also very attractive.
- Willows: A number of willow cultivars have colored stems. These include Salix ‘Flame’ with reddish orange stems and S. alba ‘Britzensis’ which can range from yellow to red in bark color.
Shrubs that flower in winter or early spring
Surprisingly, there are a number of shrubs that flower in the winter.
- Andromeda (Pieris spp.). P. japonica and its cultivars are commonly grown. They flower in early spring. Varieties with white or pink flowers are available.
- Black pussy-willow (Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’. Jet black male and female catkins appear in late winter.
- Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas). One of the first shrubs or small trees to start blooming in early spring.
- Paper bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha). Bears clusters of aromatic yellow flowers.
- Sweet box (Sarcococca spp.). S. hookeriana ‘Humilis’ is particularly attractive. Spreads by suckers.
- Viburnums (Viburnum spp.). A number of viburnum species flower in the winter. One of the best is Bodnant viburnum (Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’).
- Winter hazel (Corylopsis spp.). All species have pendant racemes of fragrant yellow flowers.
- Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.). These shrubs have cold-resistant, fragrant, yellow, spider-shaped flowers. Varieties of H. x intermedia are popular.
- Winter daphne (Daphne odorata). For Zones 7-9. Lovely plant, although it has the reputation of being difficult to grow.
- Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragantissima). Produces fragrant, perfumed white flowers from January to March.
- Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). Bears yellow flowers all winter. A creeping vine that makes a good ground cover on steep slopes.
Shrubs with attractive fruit
- Evergreen Hollies (Ilex spp.). Hollies, with their intense red berries, are the classic winter-flowering shrub (or tree). The European holly (I. aquifolium) and its cultivars are commonly grown. A hybrid form (Ilex x altaclerensis) 'Highclere' is popular. Yellow-berried forms are also available, e.g. I. opaca ‘Yellow Jacket’. Note that hollies are dioecious and need a close-by male plant to pollinate the female, fruit–bearing plant.
- Deciduous hollies. There are a number of deciduous holly species, and most of them have attractive berries which persist into winter, e.g.:
- possumshaw holly (I. decidua). Native holly that can grow to 20 feet. ‘Red escort’ is a good male pollinator although I. opaca may also be able to cross-pollinate this species.
- common winterberry or black alder (I. verticillata). Grows 6-10 feet in height and is tolerant of wet conditions. ‘Jim Dandy’ and ‘Southern gentleman’ are male pollinators fro this species.
- Japanese winterberry (I. serrata). Similar to the American species but with smaller fruit that matures earlier. There are also several hybrids between I. verticillata I and I. serrata.
- Beautyberries (Callicarpa spp.). There are several species of beautyberries, all with interesting fruit:
- Callicarpa americana. Bright violet to magenta fruit in winter. May die back each winter in Zone 5.
- Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’. A popular variety with brassy orange fruit, Best in Zones 6-8.
- Callicarpa dichotoma. Has lilac-violet fruit in winter. May die back each year in Zone 5.
- Callicarpa japonica (Japanese beautyberry). Has large violet-purple fruit. Good for Zones 5-8. A variety called ‘Heavy Berry’ produces more berries than the native species.
- Berberis. A large genus with about 450 species, several of which have garden interest. The fierce thorns on these plants make them somewhat of a danger but also means that they can make a good barrier hedge.
- Firethorn (Pyracantha spp.). There are several species of firethorn, mainly native to the Far East, that have striking winter berries. Recommended varieties include ‘Orange Glow’, ‘Flava’, ‘Red Column’, and ‘Teton’. Firethorn can be trained to grow up walls or on frames.
Although they die during the winter, many ornamental grasses can provide color and interest during the winter months. Moreover, they can provide food for birds and other wildlife. There are many grasses to choose from. Here is a selection:
- Big blue stem (Andropogon gerardi) – has beautiful fall color also.
- Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) – native prairie grass.
- Feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) – has stiff, upright growth habit.
- Miscanthus – there are numerous species and varieties of Japanese maiden grass that will provide great winter interest, e.g.
- M. floridulus – called giant miscanthus because of its large size (10-12 feet).
- M. sinensis ‘Silberfeder’ – has large beige plumes in winter.
- M. sinensis ‘Strictus’ – also known as zebra grass because of its striped leaves.
- Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) – also good for dried flower arrangements.
- Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) – form graceful, fountain-like clumps.
- Purple moorgrass (Molina caerulea) – can be grown in part shade.
- Switch grass (Panicum virgatum) – upright grass growing to 3-8 feet.
For tips on a variety of gardening topics, see our Plant Information Guides.
- Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service