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Plant Trees and Shrubs That Add Interest to a Garden in Winter

Updated on September 19, 2016
Dolores Monet profile image

An avid gardener for over 40 years, Dolores has landscaped for private clients and maintained one client's small orchid collection.

Trees and Shrubs With Year Long Interest

If you love a beautiful garden there is no reason not to have one all year long. All too often, we experience a rush of beauty in spring, tons of color in summer that dribbles off in autumn as the asters and chrysanthemums fade, and the trees turn brown in November.

But a yard and garden can be attractive all through winter too! With a little research and planning, you can create a landscape that gives you visual interest all year long! Some of these recommended trees and shrubs look even prettier in the winter, when you can see the bare branches of trees that have a unique form or interesting branching pattern.

Trees Heavy With Snow

(photo by Dolores Monet)
(photo by Dolores Monet)

A Tree (or Shrub) For All Seasons

Of course, everything looks pretty with a dusting of snow. But for many of us, snow is a rarity. Our winters are dull and drab, and , frankly, depressing. However, there are many trees and shrubs with interesting shapes and beautiful color - some which hide the main attraction under their own foliage. Their forms are nature's own unique sculpture in winter.

Evergreens maintain their color throughout the winter and give the gray winter landscape a splash of green. Evergreens offer shelter and sometimes food for the birds that remain all winter long. What could be more beautiful than a fir tree with a vivid red cardinal?

Trees with interesting or exfoliating bark are so much more obvious and appreciated in winter.

The following are some trees and shrubs that add interest to the winter landscape. At the end of the article, you will find planting tips for trees and shrubs.

Shrubs that Add Interest to a Winter Landscape

Acuba japonica "Gold dust" is a dense evergreen shrub with ovate, leathery green leaves that are spotted with dots (almost like polka dots) of creamy yellow. Acuba japonica grows 8' tall and 8' wide. Plant in partial shade, but will thrive in full shade. Drought tolerent. Takes to pruning for size. Zone 7 - 10)

Acuba japonica "Gold Dust"

(photo by Dolores Monet)
(photo by Dolores Monet)

Crepe Myrtle is a tall shrub that can stand in as a tree in a small setting. Trim away low growing branches to create a tree form. In winter, the patchy, exfoliating bark is very pretty. Crepe myrtle blooms in summer with brilliant, close packed flowers. It grows up to 20' tall in Zone 7 - 9.

Not all Crepe Myrtles feature dramatic bark. The varieties that have the showiest winter bark are:





Crape Myrtle

Corylus avellana "Contorta" or Harry Lauder's Walking Stick is a shrub with broad oval leaves and long, yellow male catkins in late winter. The contorted form of the branches make for great winter interest. Plant in well drained, slightly alkaline soil. Crumble some mortar or broken cement to add alkalinity to the soil if you need it. Remove or prune away suckers. Zone 4 - 8.

(Harry Lauder was a Scottish comedian known for his contorted cane, or walking stick)

Harry Lauder's Walking Stick

(wikimedia commons; photo by S B Johnny)
(wikimedia commons; photo by S B Johnny)

Hollywood Juniper or Juniperus Torulosa is a large evergreen shrub of the juniper family with dense foliage that grows in a contorted, twisting habit. It is hardy, drought and salt tolerant, and low maintenance. Grows 10' - 15' tall in full sun. Hollywood juniper can be planted close to walls and foundations.

Hollywood Juniper

(photo by Dolores Monet)
(photo by Dolores Monet)

Nandina (Nandina domestica) or Heavenly Bamboo is not a bamboo at all (which is a grass) but a broad leaved evergreen shrub, with delicate, pointed, ovate leaves that produces beautiful red berries in fall. The berries attract birds all winter. At 3' - 4' tall, Nandina is deer resistant, hardy, and needs no pruning. Zone 6 - 9

Plant in partial shade or full sun. For best color, plant so that the shrub gets morning sun and a bit of shade in afternooons. The leaves will die off if the winter gets below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The canes will die back if the temperature goes below - 10 F, but will grow back in spring. Prefers acid soil.

Nandina berries can be toxic in large quantities. In one case, cedar wax-wings in Georgia died after gorging on the winter fruit. The plant is invasive in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida.


(wikimedia commons; photo by Forest and Kim Star)
(wikimedia commons; photo by Forest and Kim Star)

Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus alba) is a shrub that enjoys damp areas with full sun. Red twig dogwoods offer spring blooms, variegated leaves, and year long interest. But the beautiful twigs that become red in winter provide a brilliant splash of color to the winter landscape. For best winter color, prune out 1/3 of the older branches every third year, in late winter, as the color is most intense on younger branches. Zone 3 - 8

Red Twig Dogwood

(Wikimedia commons; US Gov.)
(Wikimedia commons; US Gov.)

Small Trees that Add Interest to a Winter Garden

Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii) is an irregularly shaped evergreen with longish needles that takes well to pruning for shape and form. Often featured in Japanese gardens for the versatility of its form. A hardy, small tree, growing to 35' tall in full sun, in moist, well drained soil. Japanese black pine is tolerant of sandy soil, and salt water regions. Zone 4 - 8.

Japanese Black Pine

(wikimedia commons; photo by Namazu-tron)
(wikimedia commons; photo by Namazu-tron)

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) is a relatively small tree with a graceful growth habit that can take on a sculptural quality in winter. There are 400 varieties of Japanese maple. Some grow no taller than a shrub. Delicate, deeply cut leaves can be red all summer, or a lovely green or mixed red and green. Leaves turn vivid scarlet in fall. Zone 5 - 8. Plant in partial shade, in moist, well drained soil. Leaves may scorch in hot dry weather; water to avoid scorch.

Japanese Maple

(wikimedia commons; photo by Jeremy Reding)
(wikimedia commons; photo by Jeremy Reding)

Paperbark Maple (Acer grisium) is a small tree with a pleasant shape that grows 26' tall and 20' wide. It features attractive buff and cinnamon colored exfoliating bark. Paperbark maple has small yellow flowers in spring, and great fall color.

Best planted in moist, well driained soil in partial shade. Does not tolerate drought in hot areas. Leaves will scorch in hot dry weather so water to avoid. Zone 4 - 8.

Paperbark Maple

(wikimedia commons; photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont)
(wikimedia commons; photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont)

Large Trees for Winter Interest

American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) or American Plane Tree is a massive deciduous tree, growing to a height of 130', an excellent shade tree that adapts well to urban conditions. It has a beautiful open growth habit and attractive, exfoliating bark that resembles camouflage in green, tan, and cream. It is long lived, fast growing and prefers lowlands and fields. It's interesting bark and beautiful shape make it an excellent addition to the winter landscape. Zone 4 - 9.

American Sycamore

(wikimedia commons; photo by Jim Thomas)
(wikimedia commons; photo by Jim Thomas)

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glypsostroboides) is a tall growing tree, unique and beautiful in the winter landscape. This living fossil was thought to be extinct until found growing in China in the late 1940s. Dawn redwood is deciduous yet coniferous and has a pyramidal growth habit with cinnamon colored bark. The lower trunk forms deep ripples to buttress the huge tree. Tolerant of wet soil and urban areas. Zone 5 - 11.

Dawn Redwood

(photo by Dolores Monet)
(photo by Dolores Monet)

Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara) is a densely needled, graceful evergreen tree reaching 40' - 70' tall. The soft, somewhat pendulous branches and pyramidal shape give Deodar cedar a striking affect all year long. Plant in full sun in well drained to dry alkaline soil. Drought, wind, and heat tolerant in Zone 7 - 10. a stand alone specimen tree. A pendula cultivar is a weeping variety.

Deodar Cedar

(wikimedia commons; photo by Jean Pol Grandmont)
(wikimedia commons; photo by Jean Pol Grandmont)

River Birch "Heritage" (Betula nigra) is a handsome, remarkable, hardy tree that grows up to 50' tall. Its beautiful multicolored, exfoliating bark make it a distinctive presence in the winter landscape. The popularity of this tree make it easy to find in nurseries and garden centers. Tolerates spring flooding, summer drought, and temperature extremes.

River Birch "Heritage"

(wikimedia commons; photo by Sue Sweeney)
(wikimedia commons; photo by Sue Sweeney)

Tree in the Winter

(wikimedia commons; photo by un-benannt)
(wikimedia commons; photo by un-benannt)

How To Plant a Tree or Shrub

  • Trees and shrubs are best planted in spring or early fall.
  • Dig the hole 2 - 3 X the width of the root ball or container of the tree or shrub. Leave a small raised area in the center.
  • If you have heavy, clay soil, score the sides of the hole for easier root growth.
  • Add some compost to the hole. Mix compost or composted manure with the soil that you have removed from the hole.
  • Open the burlap and gently spread it out. If plant is in container, remove from container. If the roots seemed tightly packed, gently tease the roots apart.
  • Set the tree or shrub in the hole. Do not grab the trunk, but handle the root ball.
  • Back fill the hole and water.
  • Mulch. Do not allow the mulch to press up against the trunk.
  • Water again.
  • Water once a week for the first year.


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