Some of us like winter. There’s nothing wrong with us; we simply embrace the change of season and the bracing, frigid air. We appreciate the overlooked aspects of plants once they’ve gone dormant, because many of them offer a different kind of ornamental interest. Think of it this way: It’s said that you can’t appreciate bounty without loss; you can’t appreciate joy without sorrow. Or something like that.
It’s really all about balance, and the counterpoint to summer’s brilliant and often riotous color is winter’s palette of quieter hues. Texture takes center stage, as the subtle textural elements aren’t required to compete with brighter floral displays.
Trees have the advantage of displaying their bark year round, but once they’ve lost their foliage, magnificent shapes also can be seen. A friend once commented that seeing trees in winter depressed her: Bereft of their leaves, they looked forlorn. I’d always thought just the opposite. Without their cover of green, the barren trunks and limbs and branches show phenomenal strength and grace. To each his (or her) own.
Aside from massive trees, there are numerous shrubs and perennials that shine in the colder months. They take less time to establish, of course, and so their addition to the landscape provides near-immediate payback of year-round attraction. We’ll take a look here at just a few examples from each group, but we’d also like to hear about your favorite winter plant. Small tree, shrub or herbaceous perennial, what’s your go-to selection for a splash of winter fun?
1. Athyrium species
Evergreen ferns lend both color and texture to the cold months, and the selection Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (Japanese painted fern) is an outstanding choice for winter gardens. It’s best suited to sheltered locations, where light shade brings out optimal frond color in spring and summer. Typically reaching up to about 18 inches tall, the graygreen fronds are brushed with silver and accented by maroon to purple midribs. The cultivar ‘Burgundy Lace’ shows a rich, near-metallic burgundy tone that’s at its most brilliant in spring, but stands out all year long.
Hardy in zones 3(4) to 8(9).
Known as “pig squeak” for the high-pitched sound leaves make when they’re rubbed between the thumb and forefinger (how rude!), Bergenia features thick, leathery leaves that are strong enough to withstand snow and cold. Throughout the growing season, foliage is a shiny, medium-green sometimes highlighted by a deeper red to purple margin. Often used as a groundcover, Bergenia reaches 12 to 18 inches tall with a similar spread.
The foliage of the petite cultivar ‘Flirt’ turns nearly black in winter, making it a real standout.
Hardy in zones 3 to 8.
3. Cornus canadensis
It’s considered deciduous, but bunchberry may not lose all of its foliage in winter; if there’s not much snow on the ground, Cornus canadensis can be seen to offer burgundy to purple leaves amid patches of rime and ice. It’s native to cool climates, specifically in coniferous and mixed forests throughout the northern U.S. and Canada, and performs best in cold conditions in the shade of trees and shrubs. Brilliant, shiny red fruit — bunches of berries — persist into winter. Typical mature height is only about 9 inches and it spreads by woody rhizomes, making it a suitable and hardy groundcover in northern gardens.
Hardy in zones 2 to 6.
4. Erica carnea
Erica carnea, the aptly named winter heath or snow heath, forms a dense groundcover supporting needle-like, medium-green leaves. Bloom time is from January to March, during which 6- to 12-inchtall spikes bear tubular flowers ranging from light purple to pink; plants may bloom beneath snow in the more northern locations of their growing range. The cultivar ‘Springwood Pink’ reaches only to about 9 inches tall and can produce light pink flowers that deepen with age, but are persistent from December through May.
Hardy in zones 5 to 7.
5. Helleborus species
Like some people we know, some plants perform best in winter. Helleborus is one such selection, known for its hardy growth and compelling flowers that bloom throughout the coldest months. Both Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose) and H. niger (Christmas rose) are happiest in part to full shade; Lenten rose grows up to 18 inches tall while Christmas rose reaches about 12 inches. Large, cupshaped flowers resembling roses nod from the stems, but a few have been bred to deliver blooms that face upright. Flower color is widely variable, ranging from white through pink to the darkest blue-black.
The deep-hued double hellebore pictured here is Terra Nova’s ‘Onyx Odyssey’, part of the company’s Winter Jewels™ collection.
Hardy in zones 3 to 9.
Woodies for winter
1. Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’
For the sheer fun of twisting and turning shapes, Harry Lauder’s walking stick has no rival. Like a challenging puzzle or a macramé project gone wrong, the slow-growing limbs and branches of Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ form a gnarled and twisted shrub that reaches about 10 to 15 feet tall with an equivalent spread. Add to that the persistent and showy golden catkins that remain throughout winter, and Harry Lauder’s walking stick becomes the focal point in the winter landscape.
Hardy in zones 3 to 9.
2. Ilex verticillata
You can’t go wrong in those frigid months with a plant whose common name is “winterberry.” The small shrub is the very picture of winter cheer, with its prolific displays of bright red berries that often persist into spring — provided the local bird population doesn’t partake. Winterberries are dioecious, and only female plants will bear the brilliant fruit, but one male plant can be sufficient for pollinating up to 10 female plants.
Growing from 3 to 12 feet tall with a similar spread, Ilex verticillata does best in full sun to part shade.
Hardy in zones 3 to 9.
3. Gaultheria procumbens
Low-growing Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen) forms an attractive, evergreen groundcover in full to part shade. It reaches only about 6 to 12 inches high but spreads up to 3 feet, providing a dense mat that’s covered with glossy oval leaves that turn red to burgundy or purple once cold temperatures set in. Small white flowers are followed by dramatic and long-lasting, scarlet-red berries.
This is the plant from which wintergreen oil once was extracted for medicinal purposes, and the flavor remains popular for gum, toothpaste and candies (remember Wint-OGreen Life Savers?).
Hardy in zones 3 to 8.
4. Mahonia species
It’s unusual to find a shrub that blooms as late in the year as this one, but the happy spikes of yellow mahonia flowers brighten the winter landscape. Mahonia × media ‘Charity’, pictured here, features 10- to 12-inch-long spikes of yellow flowers in late fall through winter; the flowers develop into clusters of black berries by late summer and fall. Dark green, evergreen foliage is truly architectural, growing in whorls along upright stems. (Leaves may turn red in fall, but autumn foliage color isn’t reliable.) The shrub reaches 10 to 15 feet tall if it isn’t pruned and performs best in part to full shade.
Hardy in zones 7 to 9.
5. Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis
Known as Himilayan sweetbox, Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis performs beautifully in the shade garden; it’s slow growing and reaches only about 1 to 2 feet tall and spreads 2 to 4 feet, but sometimes up to about 8 feet. This broadleaf evergreen maintains its clean, shiny foliage year round and produces tiny, fragrant, tubular white flowers in late winter to early spring. These are followed by small, shiny, blue-black fruits.
Hardy in zones 6 to 8(9).