Plants for Winter Interest
25 Jan 2006
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
Year after year, we plan our gardens with an eye toward spring and summer. Too little consideration is given to the long, winter months and achieving year-round beauty in the landscape. Many plants display winter attributes that are every bit as attractive as their summer characteristics. Though coniferous evergreens provide green beauty throughout the cold season, there are several deciduous trees and shrubs with striking bark, interesting shapes, and colorful twigs and fruit. Then there are the plants that bloom in the cold weather, providing striking contrasts to the otherwise muted landscape. Here are a few to consider as you plan your garden for next winter.
Betula nigra (River Birch) - This native birch is an excellent alternative to the white-barked birches that are extremely susceptible to bronze birch borer. River birch is highly resistant to this insidious pest. The reddish-brown to peach-colored, flaky bark produces a warm effect against a white background. The bark of 'Heritage' tends to peel more and displays a salmon color.
Cornus sericea (Redosier Dogwood) - Redosier dogwood, a native shrub, adds a shock of color to the winter landscape. For some cultivars, such as Cardinal, the young stems are bright red in the cold months, becoming more intensely colored toward spring. The Flaviramea cultivar has bright yellow winter twigs. To encourage the growth of young stems with the brightest colors, cut back older stems to the ground in early spring.
Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) This specimen tree has beautiful cinnamon red exfoliating bark.
Erica carnea (Winter Heath) This is a low-growing, slow-spreading, evergreen shrub with many long flowers that bloom in the winter-spring time frame. Good for rock gardens or perennial beds, these are a nice burst of color in the cold months.
Crataegus viridis (Green Hawthorn) This is a dense, thorny tree with nice fall color and berries that last into the winter. The cultivar Winter King has nice large, red berries.
Hamamelis virginiana (Common Witchhazel) This small tree is noted for its late winter blooms. The stringy yellow flowers are striking in February or March and fragrant as well. They share a pest insect with birch trees that is not really harmful but it is galling to see for some so it is good to keep them apart.
Euonymus alatus (Winged Euonymus or Burning Bush) - The flaming-red shrub seen so frequently in the fall has winged stems and twigs that are quite attractive, especially after a snow when they catch and hold the glistening flakes. Under optimum conditions, this species can grow to a height and spread of 15 to 20 feet. Dwarf forms are available also.
Camellia japonica (Japanese Camellia) We are on the edge of its range for this plant but if you can place it in a protected area it is worth the effort. There are many cultivars with a variety of foliage and flower colors, blooming times, and sizes. In general they are evergreen and flower during the winter months. Be careful to choose cultivars that are cold hardy.
Nandina domestica (Heavenly Bamboo) Some have said this plant is overused but I still think it is nice sight to see this time of year with its colorful berries and foliage.
Ilex verticillata (Winterberry) - Winterberry forms an oval rounded shrub that is excellent for mass effect or the shrub border. The sexes of this shrub are separate, so fruits are produced only on female plants, and only if a male plant is close. After the leaves drop (usually after the first frost), a profusion of bright-red berries is exposed. The berries will remain bright red well into winter or until eaten by birds. 'Sparkleberry,' holds its berries until early spring.
Gymnocladus dioicus (Kentucky Coffeetree) This tree is notable for its interesting shape and bark, not to mention the large pods it displays (and drops). The views it provides are worth the droppings you may feel inclined to clean up.
Myrica pensylvanica (Bayberry) - Bayberry is found growing naturally close to the ocean, and thus is highly salt tolerant. It thrives in poor, sterile, sandy soils, but is extremely adaptable to a variety of soil types. The plant is deciduous to semi-evergreen, so it may hold its leathery leaves through winter in some parts of the state. Clusters of gray-blue berries are borne in great quantities along the stems of the female plants. These berries are used in making bayberry candles.
Ulmus parvifolia (Chinese or Lacebark Elm) - This tough, durable tree is tolerant to poor soils and extremes in pH. During the winter months, its magnificent bark is exposed -- a mottled combination of gray, green, orange, and brown. Do not confuse this beautiful specimen with the inferior Ulmus pumila (Siberian Elm) that does not possess the desirable traits of the Lacebark elm.
Mahonia x media (Oregon Grapeholly) This particular Mahonia is a cross between M. japonica and M. lomariifolia. It is an evergreen shrub with bright yellow flowers that are sometimes fragrant and appear within a range of fall to late winter, both factors dependent on the cultivar of which there are a half a dozen or so.
For more information about these and other landscape gardening topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.