You can beat the blahs of a winter landscape by remembering the three B’s of off-season gardening: blooms, branches, and berries. Admittedly, there are only a handful of introduced plants, and even fewer native species, which bloom and provide colorful relief during the gray days of mid-winter, with the striking and noteworthy exception of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), alternately called common, fall- or winter-blooming witch hazel.
native variety is a relatively slow-growing small tree or upright
shrub which begins its horticultural display in autumn with yellow fall
foliage which soon turns to orange and golden-brown, and proudly
heralds the beginning of its late-season blooming period. After the
leaves have fallen, clusters of small, soft-scented yellow flowers
appear along the branches from October through December. Each spidery
clump consists of four twisted, fringe-like petals not quite one-inch
long. Interestingly, the lemon-yellow ribbons tend to fully unfurl on
warm sunny days, when we are lucky enough to get them, and, like most
of us, curl up into a more compact mass when the weather turns cold and
More than a
dozen non-native witch hazel cultivars have been gaining in popularity
among winter gardeners, with dramatic new flower colors ranging from
ruby-red and copper, to burgundy and bright orange-yellow, and
featuring significantly later blooming periods, even into February, and
a stronger fragrance. These low-maintenance hybrids are typically
crosses of Chinese and Japanese witch hazels, and include favorites like
‘Jelena,’ which combines brilliant fall foliage in November with an
encore of coppery red blooms as late as February and March, and ‘Arnold
Promise,’ a brilliant yellow late-blooming cultivar developed by the
year-round color, garden designers have long cherished the subtle and
sometimes spectacular twigs and trunks of our native dogwood species.
Leading the list is red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea formerly stolonifera),
also aptly called red-twig dogwood. This fast-growing specimen is a
cousin to the white flowering dogwood with which we are more familiar,
and quickly forms attractive thickets ideal for screening or habitat
white flowers and berries are popular among songbirds like vireos,
finch, and pine warblers, they are somewhat dull in appearance, a
deficit more than offset by its brilliant red twigs and reddish-green
bark. After a snowfall, nothing stands out in a winter garden more than
the vivid red stems which seem to shoot up from a pure field of snow.
In addition, goldfinches have been known to favor this species for a
nesting site; their bright feathers flitting among the branches will
ornament both shrub and garden alike.
attractive option is the yellow-twig dogwood (‘Silver and Gold’), a
cultivar of red osier, renowned for its green and white variegated
foliage, good autumn color, and, above all, bright golden bark.
Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum)
takes its name from the grayish hairs along younger branches and
flower buds, and features reddish-purple twigs and darker
mahogany-brown bark. Silky dogwood also presents lovely flat
creamy-white clusters of flowers in the spring, followed by bluish
clusters of fruit in late summer, often lasting through fall and
and perhaps most important components for a winter garden are berries.
Berry-bearing small trees and shrubs add a surprising splash of color
and seem to stand out equally well against either snow-covered garden
beds or leaden winter skies. Of equal importance, berries support
scores of migrating and over-wintering birds, some of which, like
cardinals, woodpeckers and bluebirds, add their own element of lively
color to a landscape.
Topping most lists is winterberry or “possum haw” (Ilex verticillata),
a deciduous native holly with upright, spreading stems reaching up to
ten feet in height. Clusters of white flowers appear in April through
May, producing bright reddish-orange to deep red berries which last
through the winter, avian appetites notwithstanding. Keep in mind that
winterberry is dioecious, having male and female flowers on respective
plants, and requiring at least one male shrub for every three to four
Native viburnum species, such as Arrowwood or American cranberry (V. trilobum),
provide attractive clusters of white flowers in spring, brilliant fall
foliage, and berries ranging from bright red to bluish-black in fall
through winter. The species also provide an important source of fruit to
more than fifty species of songbirds in our area.
Both red and purple chokeberries (Aronia
species) take their name from colorful fruits which offer brilliant
red and scarlet foliage in autumn, followed by bright red or
blackish-purple fruits throughout the winter. For best effect, it is
generally recommended that chokeberries be planted in clusters for a
natural, sprawling effect.
Sumacs are best known alongside roadways, but smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)
makes for attractive massed plantings or “colonies” in home
landscapes, like the chokeberries. Autumn foliar displays, similar to
chokeberries, are replaced in winter by greenish-crimson fruit which
can last into spring and are keen favorites of bluebirds, catbirds,
robins, and mockingbirds.
of course, are only a sampling of the (mostly) native species which
can be used to adorn a winter garden. There are also evergreens with
variegated foliage, ornamental grasses featuring golden orange stems
and graceful tufts of seedheads, and so much more. For an expanded tour
of the subject turn to Rosemary Verey’s now-classic The Garden in Winter.
Copyright 2012, Joseph M. Keyser