Plants with Winter Interest
Winter Interest Overview
Many people neglect to consider using plants in landscapes that are attractive during the winter months. Instead, the focus is placed on blooms and color during the growing season. Snow and freezing temperatures do not allow for plant growth, but there are several trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and grasses that stand out during the winter months due to their unique characteristics. Many plants with winter interest look great year around as well.
Shrubs with Winter Interest
There are many shrubs that look great when the ground is covered in snow. Evergreens are an obvious choice, but many deciduous shrubs work great as well. Some have great color while others have unique form that add contrast to a wintery landscape. A few have fruit that add vivid color onto snow white backgrounds.
Red Twig Dogwood
Red twig dogwood (Cornus) is great choice for a winter landscape. The distinct red bark stands out in a bare, snow covered landscape. It works great standing alone or as a hedge. Yearly rejuvenation pruning needs to occur to keep red twig dogwood looking tidy and attractive.
Yews (Taxus) are hardy evergreens with bright red berries that have appealing qualities during the winter months. Yews can be kept compact and solitary, or several yews can be grown and pruned into a hedge. The needles are relatively soft which makes pruning easier compared to many other evergreens. Yews are appealing year around as long as pruning keeps them tidy and uniform.
Euonymus (Euonymus), commonly called "Burning Bush", has striking autumn color and looks great during the winter. The branches have tiny ridges that appear to be exfoliating. These ridges give character to the plant, as well as catching snow to add more appeal. The bare winter form of Euonymus is unique and appealing also.
Holly (Ilex) is a quintessential winter plant and represented heavily during winter holidays. The evergreen shrub has small, glossy leaves and red berries. The red berries add a bonus appeal to holly. The leaves are also slightly wavy and catch snow well. Holly grows well year around and fits well into many landscape designs.
Hydrangeas (Hydrangea) are great year around plants. Their large flowers remain intact long after blooming. The dried flower heads should not be cut off, but left alone and intact. The dead and faded flowers of hydrangeas look like oversize snowflakes, especially when covered in frost or snow.
Trees with Winter Interest
There are many coniferous and deciduous trees that are attractive during the winter months. Some deciduous trees feature exfoliating bark and unique branching which offers diversity in a wintery environment. Coniferous evergreen trees remain green even during the coldest winters.
Birch (Betula) are medium size trees with attractive exfoliating bark. The bark adds diversity in color and texture to a snowy environment. The peeling bark catches snow and ice which adds to its aesthetic value. Dark lenticels add color to the trunks and branches. Multiple trunks is a common trait and appealing among birch. River birch and paper birch are common varieties of birch.
Oaks (Quercus) can grow up to 100 feet tall and easily live for over a century. The Bur Oak is heavy in texture with coarse bark. The bare form of oaks during the winter months is attractive due to their slightly gnarly branching habits. Several oaks have winter interest, as well as year around interest.
Paperbark maples (Acer griseum) are medium sized trees with exfoliating bark similar to birch trees. The bark is smooth, shiny orange-red and peels in thin, papery layers. The branches can span 15 to 25 feet wide. The bark is the most noticeable characteristic of the paperbark maple and accentuates a winter landscape very well.
There are many trees which are coniferous. A few examples are cedars, Douglas-firs, cypresses, firs, larches, pines, hemlocks, redwoods, and spruces. Many conifers seasonally alter their biochemistry to resist harsh winters while remaining green. Conifers are an obvious choice for winter interest. The branches are broad and tiered which allows snow to land and add contrast. Some conifers offer good protection for birds and other animals during bitter cold months.
Grasses and Herbaceous Plants with Winter Interest
There are many grasses and herbaceous plants that look great in a winter landscape. A few of them are listed below.
Grasses like Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) are cold hardy and drought resistant. Grasses that retain their seed heads look great in a snowy landscape. Grasses also tend to require little maintenance year around.
The Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) is an evergreen perennial flowering plant with white blooms. Christmas Rose will begin to bloom in late winter and early spring. The Algerian Iris (Iris unguicularis) is an evergreen as well. The bulbs are cold hardy and purple blooms appear in winter and spring. Bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia) bears pink to rose-red flowers on red stalks in late winter to early spring.
Before you invest in any plant, be sure to consider location, site suitability, and mature size. The plants should harmonize with the rest of the landscape, of course, but aesthetic wishes shouldn't trump the plants best suited for a desired area. Soil properties, fertility, and preparation need to be thoroughly researched before planting. The amount of sunlight, shade, and moisture are major factors as well.
Always research the cold hardiness of plants and cold hardiness zones. Plants native to the region are best used when deciding on hardiness and drought tolerance.