Thursday, January 1, 2009

Plants for Winter Interest

An important goal of a garden designer is to design gardens that will provide year-round interest. This is a simple task if one can identify and use plants that bloom in each season of the year. While it is easy to choose plants during their growing season as we can clearly see the plant's form, foliage and flower, it is sometimes tougher to find those plants that will make strong additions to the garden while dormant. There are many hardy garden plants that can provide plenty of interest and enjoyment throughout the winter months.

Photo by Paul Collins

The color and structure of plants such as the red-stemmed Cornus alba (Red Twig Dogwood) and evergreen Liriope muscari
(Liriope) can greatly enhance the winter garden.

While evergreens are the “backbone” of the garden and provide structure and interest all year long, a few are winter stand-outs. Many of the Ilex species (Hollies) produce bright red berries in early winter and retain them all winter long. Some of these hollies include Fosters, Emily Brunners, Nellie Stevens and American.

Photo by littlegemtrees

Nellie Stevens Hollies produce bright red clusters of berries in winter.

When it comes to winter-flowering plants in the south, Camellias are king. Camellia sasanqua (Sasanqua) blooms from October through December while Camellia japonica (Common Camellia) starts blooming in January and can last well into April. Both are large shiny-leaved evergreen shrubs that are beautiful year-round.

Photo by The Peterson Farm

Camellia japonica 'Dr. Tinsley'

Daphne odora (Winter Daphne) has striking evergreen variegated foliage and its very fragrant flowers start blooming in late January and can last through March. Plant these plants near a pathway or entrance where their fragrance can be enjoyed in winter.

Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder

Daphne odora is a small rounded evergreen shrub that grows in shade.

Pyracantha sp. (Firethorn) is another evergreen shrub that is often espaliered against buildings and walls. While it flowers in May, it produces brilliant orange, red or yellow berries in fall and winter. It grows to 5 to 6-feet in height.

Photo by ndrwfgg

Pyracantha or "Fire Thorn" is loaded with orange berries in winter.

Although nandina species are interesting year round, their leaves turn a brilliant red in winter. Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’ (Firepower Nandina) is a smaller variety of this evergreen shrub that has pale chartreuse leaves in summer and brilliant red leaves in winter.

Photo by

Nandina 'Firepower' is an excellent accent plant for the Winter garden with its bright red color!

Mahonias also bloom in winter. Mahonia bealei (Leatherleaf mahonia) produces fragrant lemon yellow flowers as early as February while Mahonia fortunei blooms yellow flowers in late March.

Photo by William Tanneberger

The yellow flowers of Leatherleaf Mahonia bloom as early as February.

Other evergreen shrubs that do not bloom in winter, but whose form or color still provide winter attraction include Yuccas, Junipers and the burgundy-leaved Loropetalums.

Photo by Pender Nursery

Loropetalum chinesis 'Ruby' has evergreen burgandy leaves and provides great color and contrast for the winter garden.

Deciduous plants can also contribute greatly to the winter landscape. While Chaenomeles speciosa (Flowering Quince) provides abundant red, pink or white flowers in February; Jasminum nudiflorum (winter jasmine), Hamamelis sp. (witch-hazel) and Forsythia x intermedia (Forsythia) all produce bright yellow flowers in February and March.

Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder

Witch hazels can grow to become a large shrub or small tree. They bloom from Fall to late winter in shades of yellow, orange or red.

In March, Magnolia stellata (Star Magnolia) produces large white-petaled flowers before it leafs out. It is best to plant this large shrub or small tree in front of a backdrop of large evergreens where its beautiful blooms will stand out.

Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder

Star Magnolias are prized for their large white blooms in late winter.

Deciduous trees such as Acer palmatum “Sango Kaku” (Sango Kaku Japanese Maple), Betula nigra (River Birch), Prunus sp. (Cherry) and Lagerstroemia indica (Crape Myrtle) all make striking additions to the winter garden. Not because of any bloom they may produce, but rather, because of their interesting bark and structure.

While River birches and Crape myrtles have peeling or exfoliating bark, Cherrys have a highly polished and smooth bark.

Photo by Gwen E. Sprague

The bark of the River Birch is exfoliating . This creats a course and contrasting texture and makes it interesting to view up close.

Much like Cornus alba (Red Twig Dogwood), the bark of the Acer palmatum ‘Sango kaku’ (Sango Kaku Japanese Maple) turns a brilliant red in winter and seems to glow when uplit from below.

Photo by Phillip Bower

The 'Sango Kaku' Japanese Maple makes a brilliant contrast plant for the winter garden.

Finally, Ilex verticillata (Winterberry) is a deciduous form of holly that loses its leaves in fall and produces abundant amounts of bright red berries that persist through Winter.

Photo by jrix

Winterberry is a deciduous shrub that grows from 3 to 12-feet tall.

Lastly, there are many grasses, groundcovers, vines and perennials that add spectacular structure to the garden in winter. Even though the foliage of grasses such as Miscanthes sp. (maiden grass), Pennisetum sp. (fountain grass), and Panicum sp. (switchgrass) dies with the cold weather, their form still provides striking winter structure and beauty.

Photo by grassesandgargoyles

Grasses such as Maiden grass, Fountain grass and others add beautiful architectural-like structure to the garden in winter.

Other plants including as Clematis cirrhosa (winter clematis), Euonymous fortunei (Wintercreeper), Cyclamen coum, Hellebores orientalis (Lenton Rose), and Scabiosa atropurpurea (Pincushion Flower) all bloom or change color in the winter months as well.

To get a first hand look at some of these plants in action, pay a visit to your local arboreta or garden center in mid-winter. The real stars of the winter garden will quickly make their presence known!


  1. I'm going to love coming here to see the gorgeous pictures.

  2. I agree with Puffy. The photos are beautiful.

  3. Hi! Great info. I have no clue how to garden but I know I want evergreen plants/shrubs so I have life year round. But I live in Buffalo, NY. U live in NC, do you think these plants will really work as described through our tough winter? My name is Molly & my email is if you wouldn't mind? Thanks!


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