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Best Winter Garden Plants

Updated on December 27, 2012

It's not just keen gardeners who plants which are good or at their best during winter, most people appreciate a plant which cheers up the often gloomy weather or which manages to produce flowers in December and entice us into believing that spring is just round the corner.

I have chosen plants for you which have impressed me over several winters with their winter appeal and which provide some cheer even when the sun is refusing to show through clouds. Some of these are even plants that you might be a little disdainful of in the summer when there is a panoply of showy, beautiful plants and flowers to chose from, but come winter they are still there and having their turn at being the belle of the ball.

I have by and large left out conifers which is slightly unfair, but I feel that on the whole they are best as a foil for the showier plants or an architectural statement. Apologies to conifer lovers.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mahonia and cotoneasterWinter jasmineSkimmiaViburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'
Mahonia and cotoneaster
Mahonia and cotoneaster | Source
Winter jasmine
Winter jasmine | Source
Skimmia
Skimmia | Source
Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn'
Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' | Source

Winter Flowering Mahonia

Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia bealei)
Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia bealei)

This variety will also give you yellow flowers in winter

 

Flowers

A winter flower is a flower to cherish. We can't expect all our plants to supply them, but we can thoroughly enjoy those that do. For maximum enjoyment it is worth planting your winter flowering shrubs where you can see them from your house windows especially at the front of the house where you will walk past them almost every day as you leave to go to work.

Mahonia - These can give a really good display of bright yellow flowers against evergreen foliage. My favourites are Mahonia x media 'Charity' listed by the RHS as hardy down to 23°f and Mahonia japonica hardy to 5°f with no trouble at all. A good pairing is mahonia with an upright cotoneaster - The yellow flowers and red berries set each other off nicely.

Winter Jasmine (Jasmine nudiflorium) - Another yellow winter flower. As the Latin name describes, the plant is bare of leaves in winter, but the flowers lift the spirits gleaming from a fence or house wall. It can stand alone, but is better with grown against something.

Skimmia japonica - There are white and red flowered varieties producing flowers followed by berries, and sometimes both are present together for part of the winter.

Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn' - during milder periods of winter the pink buds will open and you will enjoy the flowers scent. Although the plant is hardy down to 5°f you won't derive the most benefit in winter from it if your winters are mostly snow filled and solidly cold, but they are great in a British winter of cold spells interspersed with damper warmer weather.

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Two types of euonymus compliment each otherVariegated holly PhotiniaVariegated ivy
Two types of euonymus compliment each other
Two types of euonymus compliment each other | Source
Variegated holly
Variegated holly | Source
Photinia
Photinia | Source
Variegated ivy
Variegated ivy | Source

Variegated Euonymus

Euonymus Fortunei Emerald N Gold Two Gallon Plant
Euonymus Fortunei Emerald N Gold Two Gallon Plant

Bright variegated foliage throughout the winter

 

Variegated or Colourful Foliage

All plants which keep their leaves in winter give the eye some pleasure, but those which are variegated or have colourful leaves are a bonus. I have to be honest and admit that during the rest of the year I am a bit dismissive of variegated evergreens, but I find myself enjoying them again each winter.

Evergreen Euonymus - there are plenty of evergreen Euonymus to choose from, but it is worth checking the temperature which each variety is hardy to and purchase accordingly. Eunoymus japonicus is hardy to 23°f, but Euonymus fortunei is hardy to 5°f or lower. There are deciduous euonymus too which will provide a good autumn show of leaves and berries but are of less value to the winter garden.

Variegated Holly (Ilex) - Holly is a plant that keeps on giving in winter and whilst you can't rely on a bush or tree to produce berries 100% reliably you will definitely get a leafy show of colour from the variegated varieties in winter. Some have green and white leaves, others green and gold.. Examples include Ilex belgica aurea and Ilex camelifolia variegata.

Evergreen Photinia - the ones which provide best winter value have young growth which is red, giving an effect a little like a poinsettia. These include Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin' and Photinia serratifolia. They are not a plant to select if you have very harsh winters but are hardy to 20°f.

Variegated Ivy (Hedera helix) - There are large and small leaved varieties and they can be variegated with yellow or white. The variegated varieties are not as hardy or fast growing as the all green ones. They are mostly hardy to 20°f. Varieties include Hedera helix 'Anne Marie' and Hedera helix 'Goldheart'.


Holly covered in berries
Holly covered in berries | Source

Dual Purpose Holly

Berries

Berries which remain on the plant though winter are a welcome show and I covered some excellent species in an earlier article so shall mention just two species here. Many are attractive to birds which is at once both a bonus and ever so slightly a bane of the gardener's life when anticipating a winter long show of berries she finds her pyracanthas have been denuded by blackbirds early in the season.

Holly (Ilex) - gets another mention here. Often the green leaved rather than variegated ones berry most reliably but you need a female with a fairly nearby male or a self fertilising variety for this. If you are determined to have your own holly berries for a Christmas display in the house, you may wish to follow my father's example and loosely attach a plastic bag to a berry laden branch or two early in the season, so the birds can't get to them.

Cotoneaster - cotoneaster berries are often ignored by birds, so provide a good show throughout winter as can be seen in the mahonia and cotoneaster picture in the flower section.

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red barked dogwoodSilver birch
red barked dogwood
red barked dogwood | Source
Silver birch
Silver birch | Source

Red Barked Cornus

Coloured Bark

Shrubby Dogwood (Cornus) - shrubby dogwoods have long been popular for the colour of the new stem growth in red, orange, pink or lime green. To get this effect you need to cut back some or all of the old stems in early spring so that there is fresh growth from the base of the plant for the following winter. Good examples are Cornus alba 'Sibirica' with red stems Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea' with lime green stems and Cornus sanguiea 'Midwinter Fire' with orangey stems.

Silver Birch (Betula pendula) - The white bark of a silver birch is especially lovely on a sunny winters day against a blue sky, but is welcome even on a dull day. If you have room for one - great, but if you have room for a small group - even better - that will really look superb. If during the year you find a powdery algae on some of the bark you may want to give it a bit of a clean with some warm water and a washing up brush to take it back to pristine white. Alternatively you might think that sounds a bit of a faff and leave it be!

Himalayan Birch - is also worth considering; there are varieties with white or reddish bark and coming from the Himalayas they are exceptionally hardy.

Cherry (Prunus) - some of the cherry family have attractive bark for winter interest. Examples include Prunus maackii with tan coloured bark and Prunus serrula with coppery red bark


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IvyRobinFlock of starlings
Ivy
Ivy | Source
Robin
Robin | Source
Flock of starlings
Flock of starlings | Source

Wildlife Friendly

Many of the winter berrying plants, such as pyracantha and holly are a boon to birds and have been covered earlier. However it is worth mentioning some species which can help wildlife for other reasons.

Ivy (Hedera helix) - mentioned already in variegated form, it is the plain green original species which is great for wildlife. It is also hardier being fine to 5°f and lower. The winter flowers, though not very showy are good for any nectar seeking insects that are out and about. They are followed by berries for the birds and throughout the winter the dense glossy leaves provide excellent shelter for small birds.

Conifers - It is being a bit generalistic to lump a large group of species together, but for the purposes of winter wildlife a medium to large sized evergreen conifer is what we want. Again, like the ivy these will provide excellent shelter during wet and cold nights. I once lived near a row of the much maligned Leylandii cyprus which had been planted as a shelterbelt. A huge flock (known as a murmuration) of starlings spent their winter nights amidst it and delighted me with their flight displays before roosting each evening.

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Frosted umbellifer seed heads Frosted umbellifer seed headsTeasel seed heads
Frosted umbellifer seed heads
Frosted umbellifer seed heads | Source
Frosted umbellifer seed heads
Frosted umbellifer seed heads | Source
Teasel seed heads
Teasel seed heads | Source

Seed Heads

With a few exceptions plant seed heads look rather drab on a damp or sunless winter day, but they are brought to life by frost or a light covering of snow and are then such a joy that they are worth having for this alone. A bonus is that the seedheads provide food for birds too.

One seed head which I think looks great regardless is that of teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) and Siberian iris is quite good too.

For frosted beauty the umbellifer family is hard to beat so if you like to have wild flowers in your garden; cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) or sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) are good for seed heads or you could let the odd carrot or parsnip from your vegetable garden run to seed.

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    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 3 years ago from the short journey

      Companioning mahonia and cotonester is a beautiful idea!

      We just planted a pair of Mr. Bowling Ball Arborvitae for some winter greenery and today's snowfall on them is so pretty… :)

    • Riviera Rose profile image

      Riviera Rose 4 years ago from South of France

      This was really useful - I hate how sorry for itself my garden looks in winter. My bulbs are beginning to show but they're still a long way off...

    • Nettlemere profile image
      Author

      Nettlemere 4 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Aviannovice - I'm very much in favour of bird feeding plants too. I live in hope that one winter my pyracanthas will attract a flock of waxwings.

      Anne - I can well imagine the droppings situation - I used to take shelter in a barn to watch the incoming flock for that reason! Thank you for writing about it though - it was interesting and it's nice that they used a a peaceful sort of method to move the starlings.

      I just watched on TV flocks of a small African bird the red billed quelea which forms even more gigantic flocks than our starlings. Amazing to watch but like locusts for destroying crops!

    • bac2basics profile image

      Anne 4 years ago from Spain

      A falconer was hired and flew 2 birds over the site on a daily basis until the Starlings got fed up and moved on. ( sorry it´s in two parts, I edited and lost some script) I often saw these Starlings and another lot who roosted near my home coming in to bed down for the night and it was fascinating to watch, but I can well understand the peoples reaction who live under their flight path, specially when they flock in such huge numbers.

    • bac2basics profile image

      Anne 4 years ago from Spain

      Hi Nettlemere. The Preston starlings flight path too and from their roost was over the street where my friend lives and twice a day when they took off and came home the street was bombarded with droppings. I thought she was exagerating when she told me how bad it was until one day I spotted her car as she drove past, it was like a yellow and white dalmation, absolutely covered in bird lime. The residents in the street had to go out twice a day to clean cars, walls, pavements, back yards and windows and very quickly got sick of the mess and worried about damage to their homes and cars and also the health risk. My friend and I worked at the uni of central lancs at the time and she went along to the journalism deprtment in desperation when the council failed to take the problem seriously and said their was nothing they could do, she ended up on radio Lancashire and then the cameras came from the local news and also journalists from the papers and my friend along with other residents were interviewed. This spurred the council into action and

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      These are all excellent plants, especially those that attract birds(of course I would note that!) Thanks for a job well done.

    • Nettlemere profile image
      Author

      Nettlemere 4 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Excellent - I'm delighted to hear you've been getting some of these winter cheering plants. And I'm interested to hear about the Preston starlings. My ones were ideally placed at an agricultural college in Staffordshire, so caused no problems because although there were students like me living on site the conifers were far away enough from the living quarters and it wasn't a built up area.

    • bac2basics profile image

      Anne 4 years ago from Spain

      Hi Nettlemere. I really enjoyed this hub and funnily enough I came home this afternoon with a car crammed with evergreen shrubs, some of which you have mentioned in this hub, to replace the hedging I lost to the fire, my car resembled kew gardens and I´m very pleased I didn´t drive past any Guardia civil. The weather here has been marvellous all the way through Christmas but will take a nose dive soon and become cold, so I do need to get cracking planting up this weekend. Winter flowering plants are an essential for me and a good foil for showy summer flowers, great job netttle. Oh just as a matter of interest, the Starling problem you mentioned wasn´t near the ringway in Preston was it ? I only ask because a friend of mine lived just off there and had a huge problem one year with Starlings roosting in the leylandii conifer divide, it was so bad she got onto the press because the council didn´t do anything about it and it became a huge problem and a health hazard for those living nearby.