Posted on Jan 03, 2020 | by Kerry Kelley
Your garden doesn’t have to spend the colder months dull and dreary. If your winter view is lacking a little magic, then add some sparkle with plants that shine when the temperatures take a dive.
Flowering plants are usually the most exciting in any season, and there are some that will feed your passion long after the rest of the garden dies down.
Winter Bloomers, Best Bets:
Hellebore: Tough evergreen perennial best sited in shade, the jewel of the winter garden. Blooms in shades of yellow, pale green, pale pink to deep red, smoky purple to black, and white—many with speckles, spots, or picotee edge, singles or doubles. Look for newer varieties that hold the flowers outfacing for a better display. Long-lived, few pests or disease, but will sulk after root disturbance—plant it and leave it alone! Bonus of excellent deer resistance.
Pieris japonica: Also commonly but incorrectly called “Japonica” (which only means “from Japan”), this lovely evergreen shrub prefers sun to part shade, acidic soil, and excellent drainage (similar to rhododendrons and azaleas). Covered in decorative long, tassel-like buds during winter, blooming in very early spring with drooping clusters of flowers resembling lily of the valley, in white, pink, or red. New foliage usually red. Variegated ('Flaming Silver') and dwarf varieties ('Cavatine') available; 'Little Heath' is both. 'InterStella' Pieris from Proven Winners boasts ruby-red blooms and early bloom with long-lasting flowers.
Camellia: Refined evergreen shrub that blooms either autumn/early winter or late winter/spring. Best sited in morning sun and protected from strong winds. Prefers acidic soil and excellent drainage. Single or double flowers in white to pink to red. Showstopping in full bloom. May need deer protection. Cold hardiest varieties go only to zone 6--look especially for Ackerman hybrids.
Violas: Best winter-flowering annual. More cold and heat resistant than pansies, and sheer number of blooms more than
make up for smaller size of flowers. Much more likely to reseed, also. Almost any imaginable color, with face or clear colors. Sadly, deer candy.
Other Good Winter Bloomers: Hamamelis (Witch hazel), Corylopsis spicata (Spike winterhazel), Mahonia (especially 'Soft Caress'), 'FullMoon’ Polyspora, Erica (heather), Daphne, Sarcococca (sweet box), Grevillea x ‘Noell’, Drimys winteri var. chiloense ‘Pewter Pillar’ (Winter's Bark), Jasminum nudiflorum (Winter Jasmine), Holboellia coriacea 'Cathedral Gem'(sausage vine), English Primrose
Other plants offer interest by way of colorful bark, or bark with interesting texture. The subtle beauty and texture of exfoliating bark may be best appreciated up close, while a swath of yellow or red twig dogwood will attract attention even from a distance.
Attractive Bark Best Bets:
Betula nigra (River Birch): Captivating heavily exfoliating bark in cream, tan, and cinnamon shades. Best grown as multi-stem specimen. Fast growing native, easily 2’ per year to a mature height of 40 to 70
feet. Dwarf variety ‘Little King' or 'Fox Valley’ grows to 10’. Best planted in sun to part sun; tolerates flooding and occasional drought once established. Resistant to bronze birch borer, heat tolerant.
Laegerstroemia indica, fauriei or hybrids (Crape Myrtle): Breeding of Crape Myrtles has been heavy of late, resulting in many very dwarf varieties (which mostly look twiggy during winter) as well as almost black-foliaged types. For most winter impact, one of the best is still the standard white “Natchez.” When choosing a Crape, look for pictures of the winter bark if you can. You won’t see this on young plants at the nursery, but a mature Crape’s trunks can rival the beauty of the flowers.
Cornus sericea: Red-twig or Redosier Dogwood:
The sight of a mass of native C. sericea glowing in the winter sun is glorious indeed. In fact, this is their season—being rather inconspicuous the rest of the year. As such, though, they make a good backdrop for other plants, and will provide white flower clusters and showy fruit that attracts birds. Best in full to part sun and moist soil—may sucker aggressively in wetter soils. Average 6-8’ high and wide, dwarf cultivar ‘Kelseyi’ to 2.5’, and some with yellow stems. A similar native with reported better leaf spot resistance is Cornus amomum (Silky dogwood) 'Cayenne.' This red-stemmed variety was originally found in a beaver swamp in Virginia. Unlike Red-twig Dogwood, Silky Dogwood is found throughout the southeast, so is better suited to heat and humidity than its northern cousins. (Note: Non-native Cornus alba (Tatarian Dogwood) is also called Red-Twig Dogwood, and non-native Cornus sanguinea is called Blood Twig Dogwood--both have similar features as well as variegated types.)
Other Good Choices with Attractive Bark: Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple), Ulmus parviflora (Lacebark Elm), Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ (Coral bark Japanese Maple), Heptacodium miconiodes (Seven Son Flower), Parrotia persica (Persian Ironwood), Stewartia pseudocamellia, Stewartia sinensis, Stewartia monadelpha
If it snows frequently in your area, then the graceful silhouette of some plants will be further highlighted. Even without a frosty coating, the fascinating structure of deciduous contorted plants is at its best when unobscured by foliage.
Attractive Silhouette or Structure Best Bets:
Corylus avellana 'Contorta' (Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick): Also called corkscrew filbert, every part of this unique plant is curled and contorted--trunks, stems, and leaves. Well, with the possible exception of the roots--most nursery plants are grafted to a different (non-contorted) rootstock, so any suckers must be pruned out to retain the interesting structure. Plant in full sun to part shade in well-draining soil. Grows in a rounded shape 8 to 10' high and wide. Especially nice where the winter silhouette can be appreciated. Attractive yellowish fall catkins persist into winter. And oh, Harry Lauder was a Scottish music hall/vaudeville entertainer who famously carried a twisted walking stick. Now you know.
Poncirus trifoliata 'Flying Dragon (Contorted Osage Orange): This is just too weird not to mention. Some call it a hardy citrus, some call it Osage orange, and some call it downright painful. To be fair, it should come with a warning label-- its extremely sharp one inch thorns have prompted the Missouri Botanical Garden to pronounce it the "botancial equivalent of barbed wire." If you can get past that, you may enjoy the fascinating bright green twisted stems, fragrant flowers, and 2 inch showy yellow edible autumn fruit (very tart, best used in marmalade). 'Snow Dragon' is a striking variegated variety that displays white streaking on the leaves, thorns, and stems. No serious pests or disease issues and slow growing to 3 to 6 feet high and wide, use this as a specimen planting or a truly impenetrable hedge, if you dare
Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple): A truly outstanding small garden tree, its variable forms and colors add beauty and character year round. Whether upright or weeping, red-toned or green, dwarf or full-sized, there is a variety that is sure to enhance your garden. Plant in full sun to partial shade in well-drained soil. Protect from cold winds in northern zones and from hot afternoon sun in hot summer climates.
Other Good Choices for Silhouette/Habit: Viburnum plicatum var. horizontalis (Doublefile Viburnum), Cornus florida (Native Flowering Dogwood), Cornus kousa (Chinese Dogwood), Salix matsudana ‘Tortusa‘ (Corkscrew Willow), Arctostaphylos manzanita (Manzanita), Styrax japonicus 'Carillon'
While the foliage may not remain perfect, there are a number of evergreen perennials that will still have plenty of color and texture during winter. An occasional pruning of any heavily browned foliage will keep them looking their best, but resist any stem pruning until spring.
Evergreen Perennial Best Bets:
Ferns—Christmas, Tassel, Autumn, Holly, East Indian Holly: Ferns add fabulous texture to a garden, and there are many native and non-native evergreen
varieties from which to choose. Not all require a consistently damp soil--Christmas fern commonly grows on both dry and moist wooded slopes. A nice choice under deciduous trees, intermingled with early-blooming bulbs, and a must in the shade garden. Most do quite well in containers. And, deer don’t like them!
Heuchera: My personal favorite, these versatile perennials require only excellent drainage to perform admirably in sun or shade, in garden or container. Maple-like leaves on a mounding plant in an ever-expanding range of hues including greens, golds, yellows, reds, purples, cream, in solids or speckled and splotched. Many are now also combined with improved flowering in pink or red that will attract hummingbirds. Don’t plant too deep, mulch too close, or water too much or directly overhead, or you’re risking crown rot. Deer RARELY browse these, but it does happen. Heuchera are frequently interbred with tiarella and called heucherella—these may be mounding or spreading. Breeding has been intense--I'll wager you may find as many heuchera/heucherella varieties as hostas in most garden catalogs these days. For me, it's like a kid in a candy store!
Santolina: This lesser-known plant deserves wider use. There are two distinct commonly found forms—rosmarinifolia, with feathery bright green foliage, and chamaecyparis, with narrow, finely serrated leaves in sparkling silver. Traditionally, these were kept tightly trimmed in knot gardens, the musky scented foliage used as moth repellent. Small yellow button flowers cover the plants in summer, attracting butterflies. Deer, insect, heat, and drought resistant plants grow 1-2 feet high and wide. Plant as low hedge or edging, in herb gardens, mixed borders, and in southwestern-style plantings. Best with full sun and excellent drainage.
Other Good Evergreen Perennials: Armeria maritima (Sea Thrift) Dianthus spp., Euphorbia spp. (Tasmanian Tiger, Ascot Rainbow), Helleborus (Lenten Rose, see flowering list), Hypericum kalmianum and calycinum, Germander, Lavender, Rosemary, Sedum acre 'Coral Carpet', Sedum reflexum 'Blue Spruce', Sedum rupestre 'Angelina', Sedum spathifolium 'Cape Blanco' and 'Purpureum', Sedum spurium (semi-evergreen) 'Dragon's Blood,' 'John Creech,' and 'Tricolor,' Agave spp., Aspidistra (Cast Iron Plant), Crambe maritinum, Armeria (Sea Thrift), Epimedium, Farfugium japonicum, Rohdea japonica
Conifers were made for the winter garden—their amazing and varied textures and hues add vibrance to a garden even on cold, gray days.
Colorful Conifers Best Bets:
Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’ (Blue Star Juniper): My favorite—looks like a fluffy silver-blue ball. Slow growing to about 2 feet with a slightly wider spread, so easy to fit into most gardens. Full sun, tolerates dry, sandy soil, heat, & drought. Great in containers. These are often found as standards, grafted on trunks at heights of one to two feet. These small “lollipop” trees have the added attribute of beautiful, richly colored and textured bark.
Thuja (Arborvitae): T. occidentalis ‘Fire Chief’ has a rounded shape and rich golden color with a tinge of burnished orange deepening to red tones in fall and winter. This dwarf cultivar grows slowly to 2 to 4’, and is stunning mixed with blue-foliaged conifers, or purple shades of heuchera in foundation plantings or rock gardens.
'Anna's Magic Ball®' has a similar shape but with densely packed flattened sprays of chartreuse foliage and growing to only 2'. There are also upright pyramidal varieties in the 10 to 15’ range, like Thuja plicata 'Fluffy®’. Full to part sun and well-drained soil. Protect from strong winds in winter. And here's one of those situations where the botanical name can really make a difference--T. occidentalis (Eastern) cultivars are much more likely to be eaten by deer than their western counterparts (T. plicata, or Western Arborvitae).
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’ (Dwarf Golden Hinoki Cypress): A breathtaking beauty, both in form and color. Irregularly rounded upright shape with bright gold fans of foliage densely packed on the stems—a unique specimen for the garden. Full sun to part shade (will be lime green in more shade). Grows very slowly—only 4 to 6 inches per year. Especially lovely near a water feature.
Other Good Colorful Conifers: Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Golden Mop’ (Gold Mop Threadleaf Falsecypress), Cupressus arizonica (Arizona Cypress) 'Limelight' and 'Carolina Sapphire,' Juniperus conferta (Shore Juniper) ‘Blue Pacific’ and ‘All Gold,’ Juniperus horizontalis (Creeping Juniper) ‘Copper Harbor’ and ‘Icee Blue,’ Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red Cedar) ‘Grey Owl,’ Juniperus chinensis (Chinese Juniper ) 'Montana Moss®', ‘Angelica Blue,’ and ‘Blue Point,’ Juniperus scopulorum (Rocky Mountain Juniper) ‘Wichita,’ Juniperus x pfitziana ‘Sea of Gold,’ Picea pungens ‘Globosa’ (Blue Globe Spruce), Pinus cembra ‘Klein’ (Silver Whispers Swiss Stone Pine)
Variegated and golden broadleaf evergreens sparkle in the winter sunshine, while purple and red foliaged plants lend depth and mystery.
Colorful broadleaf evergreens Best Bets:
Osmanthus 'Goshiki': Another lesser known that should definitely be more oft-planted, but is perhaps limited by the lack of cold hardiness—safe without protection only up to zone 7. Perfect size—with time, forms a 4-6’ mound, slightly taller than wide, dense, compact, and remains fully furnished to the bottom, never needs pruning. Creamy white and green variegated holly-like leaves, new growth gold with green speckles, often tinged pink. Full sun to part shade (more southernly plantings may benefit from afternoon shade to prevent burning), no serious
pest or disease problems, and deer resistant. The complaint I most often hear is “oh, it’s so prickly!” Well, yes, but so is a holly and only if you walk into it. Forgive this plant this one “flaw” and it will reward you with years of beauty. It’s not invasive, and much prettier than barberry if you’re keeping burglars away from your windows.
PJM Rhododendron: This is a charming rhododendron with lavender or white spring flowers and small leaves akin to azalea that turn shades of mahogany to purple in winter. The habit is loose and upright, not like the “meatball” azaleas you frequently find in nurseries. Preferred siting is partial shade to shade, with excellent drainage (after all, it’s a rhodo) and acidic soil. Cold hardiness extends to zone 4. With correct culture, it should remain trouble-free.
Leucothoe: Depending on variety, these native shrubs are hardy to zone 5. Smaller sized with rounded habit and drooping stems, they are a graceful element in any shade garden. Cultivars of note are 'Rainbow' (pictured), 'Scarletta,' 'Burning Love,' and 'Curly Red.'
Other Good Colorful Broadleaf Evergreens: Abelia, Aucuba japonica, Azalea, Ilex aquifolium 'Argentea Marginata', Nandina domestica, Fatsia japonica, Ilex crenata ‘Adorned’ (Golden Japanese Holly), Illicium parviflorum ‘Florida Sunshine’ (Golden Anise Shrub), Loropetalum chinense (Chinese Fringeflower)
In making this list, I realized that most colorful broadleaf evergreens cannot winter very well (or at least attractively) above zone 7. But there are still green foliaged broadleaved shrubs that will add some winter interest in colder zones: Buxus (boxwood), Kalmia latifolia (mountain laurel), Pieris japonica (Andromeda), and various Ilex (holly) species. You might also consider the vast array of green conifers, many of which have fascinating textures, such as Thuja plicata 'Whipcord' and 'Franky Boy.'
Coming in January: check our website blog for more winter interest plants, including bulbs, berrying plants, grasses, vines & groundcovers.
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