The Winter Garden

When selecting plants for the home landscape, most trees and shrubs are chosen for their attractive flowers or colorful foliage. Little consideration is usually given to their appearance during the winter months. As a result, many home landscapes are rather boring from November through March. However, there are a number of trees and shrubs that do provide interest during the winter months. These plants possess colorful fruit, attractive bark, an interesting growth habit or form, or even flowers.

Colorful, Persistent Fruit

An excellent way to brighten the drab winter landscape is to plant crabapple varieties that possess colorful, persistent fruit. 'Adirondack,, 'David,, 'Donald Wyman,, Red Jewel, and Sugar Tyme have attractive red fruit. Yellow-fruited crabapple varieties include 'Canary,, Golden Raindrops , and Harvest Gold , while 'Autumn Glory,, 'Indian Magic,, and 'Professor Sprenger, have orange-red fruit.

Two hawthorns noted for their excellent fruit display are the Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and Winter King hawthorn (Crataegus viridis 'Winter King,). The small crabapple-like fruit of the hawthorns turn red in fall and persist into winter.

Shrubs that possess attractive fruit during the winter months include the American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum), red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), and the Meserve hybrid hollies (Ilex x meserveae). All of the aforementioned shrubs have brightly colored red fruit. Snowberries (Symphoricarpos species) have white, pink, or purplish red fruit.

Attractive Bark

Selecting trees and shrubs with colorful, peeling, or exfoliating bark is another way to add interest to the winter landscape.

A widely planted tree that possesses attractive, exfoliating bark is the river birch (Betula nigra). The exfoliating bark varies from salmon-white to reddish brown. Often planted as a multi-stemmed specimen or clump, the river birch may eventually reach a height of 50 to 60 feet.

Two small ornamental trees with exfoliating bark are the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and Amur chokecherry (Prunus maackii). The paperbark maple grows 20 to 30 feet tall, possesses cinnamon to reddish brown exfoliating bark, and is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8. The bark characteristics of the Amur chokecherry are highly variable. Bark color varies from brownish yellow to reddish brown to cinnamon red. Some exhibit little or no bark exfoliation, while others exfoliate heavily. The Amur chokecherry grows 30 to 35 feet tall.

Other trees with showy bark include the lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) and Chinese or lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia). The bark of both trees exfoliates in patches revealing a kaleidoscope of colors. The multi-colored bark of the lacebark pine contains splashes of green, white, brown, and purple while the Chinese elm is spotted with brown, gray, green, and orange.

The bright red twigs of the redosier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) set against a backdrop of newly fallen snow is one of the most beautiful sights in winter. Native to Iowa, the redosier dogwood grows 6 to 10 feet tall. Several colorful varieties are available. 'Cardinal, has bright, cherry-red stems. 'Isanti, and 'Kelseyi, are compact, red-stemmed shrubs. 'Flaviramea, has yellow stems.

Though the bark characteristics of several other shrubs are more subdued, they also add interest to the winter garden. Common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), Corneliancherry dogwood (Cornus mas), and beautybush (Kolkwitzia amabilis) possess exfoliating bark. While grown chiefly for its bright yellow flowers in late spring, Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica) also has attractive, bright green stems in winter. This upright-arching shrub is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.

Distinct Growth Habit or Form

The form or growth habit of a tree or shrub can also create winter interest. An attractive example is the horizontal branching habit of the padoga dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). The horizontal branching habit is most striking on snowy winter days as snow accumulates on the upper portions of the branches. The padoga dogwood is a large shrub or small tree which may eventually reach a height and width of 20 to 25 feet. In addition to the horizontal branching, the padoga dogwood produces yellowish white flowers in late spring and berries which change from green to red to blue-black at maturity.

Another large shrub or small tree with an interesting shape and texture is the star magnolia (Magnolia stellata). While the star magnolia is primarily grown for its white flowers in early spring, its dense oval to round growth habit, large fuzzy flower buds, and stout gray branches add winter interest. The star magnolia is a slow growing plant which may eventually reach a height of 10 to 15 feet.

The curled, twisted growth habit of Corylus avellana 'Contorta,, commonly referred to as Harry Lauder,s Walkingstick, is a sure eye-catcher in the winter landscape. 'Contorta, is a small shrub which grows 5 to 10 feet tall.


While most trees and shrubs bloom in spring or summer, the witchhazels are a notable exception. Common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms from mid-October to early December, while vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis) flowers from February to March. Their flowers consist of four, strap-like petals which curl up on cold days and unfurl in warm weather. Common witchhazel, a large shrub or small tree which grows 20 to 30 feet tall, produces yellow flowers. The flowers of the vernal witchhazel vary from yellow to red. Hamamelis vernalis may eventually attain a height of 10 feet.

Though they often go unnoticed, the red flowers of the red maple (Acer rubrum) are a sure sign that spring is not far away. The small flowers are produced in dense clusters and typically appear on warm winter days in March into April.

Lastly, the winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) produces small, creamy white flowers in March or April. While the flowers are not very showy, they are lemon-scented and extremely fragrant. The height and width of winter honeysuckle is approximately 10 feet. This shrub is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.

While evergreens are an integral part of the winter landscape, don't forget those trees and shrubs that have other ornamental features in fall and winter.

This article originally appeared in the November 9, 2001 issue, pp. 119-120.


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