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Shopping in a Winter Wonderland

Winter can be a drab time for gardens but interesting plants can be added for winter color and interest. Some key essentials for winter gardens are exfoliating bark, stem color, berries, foliage and texture.

Winter gardens are something we usually don’t think about until the dreaded white stuff appears. As you can probably tell, winter is not my favorite season: the first snowflakes make my body go into sudden convulsions. However, while driving through Michigan’s winter wonderland I often find myself shopping in other people’s landscapes to see what interesting plants I can add to mine in the coming year. Some key essentials for winter gardens are exfoliating bark, stem color, berries, foliage and texture. Let’s go through these features and examine some plants for each category.

Exfoliating bark & Stem color

Exfoliating bark is often overlooked when shopping for plants in the spring and summer because you are unable to see the bark. Two of my favorite varieties for their winter bark are London planetree (Plantanus x acerifolia) and Paperbark maple (Acer griseum). These trees have beautiful bark in the winter.

Stem color is a big thing to consider when picking out plants for the winter landscape if having a 4 season garden is of interest. Dogwood is by far the most popular genus for this cause. There are multiple colors to choose from and they are great for indoor decorating as well. Dogwood looks best when planted in mass, but older varieties can reach up to 8 to 10 feet. That is fine for larger gardens, but in small gardens, there are two types that have been recently introduced that would do much better. These varieties are Arctic Fire, Cornus stolonifera, (photo, top right) and Arctic Sun, Cornus sanguinea, (photo, left) dogwood. Reaching only 3 to 4 feet in size they can easily be managed in a small garden with 3 or 5 planted side by side. Arctic Fire is unique for its bright red stem color that lights up against a snowy backdrop setting and Arctic Sun has yellow stems at the base that change to red at the tips. It is unlike any other dogwood except ‘Midwinter Flame’ which can get up to 10 feet tall. Proven Winners® ColorChoice® is always looking for compact new varieties to use in smaller gardens.


Berries are one of my favorite features which is why I adore Viburnums. There are many different forms and all have their unique qualities, but some that I would classify as my favorites include Cardinal Candy, Viburnum dilatatum (photo, right) and Brandywine, Viburnum nudum. Cardinal Candy is one of my special favorites because the breeder is a good friend of mine, and with every phone call he puts a smile on my face. As I peer out the window on this cold December winter day, the berries of Cardinal Candy still dangle on the bare branches. It adds a sparkle of color to a dreary gray day. Brandywine is special because the berries are unique. I love the way that they transform from light green to pink to blue. There are no other species that have such a kaleidoscope of berry colors. These two Viburnums do not need another plant for pollination: they will produce berries eventually with age. The advantage of having two plants is that you will get heavier crops of berries, but when choosing a mate make sure it is of the same species (dilatatum or nudum) but a different variety and bloom at the same time.

So what other plants have amazing berries? Ilex verticillata is another choice where you can’t go wrong. These hollies actually lose their leaves in the winter, but the berries remain on for a show. The berry colors range from golden to orange to red and can be used in cut flower arrangements or wreaths during the holidays. Two of my favorite varieties of Ilex verticillata are ‘Winter Gold’ and ‘Red Sprite’. ‘Winter Gold’ has gorgeous fruit that look like golden pearls and ‘Red Sprite’ has red berries, but the stem is light brown instead dark brown like all the others. Keep in mind that these plants need a male pollinator to produce fruit. It is recommended to use ‘Jim Dandy’ with ‘Red Sprite’ and ‘Southern Gentlemen’ with ‘Winter Gold’.

Proud Berry Coral Berry (Symphoricarpos x doorenbosii ‘Kordes’) is another all-time favorite. I love the berries on this plant – they are bright pink and cover the entire shrub. Making it even more elegant is its graceful, weeping habit. There are not many shrubs that display this vibrant color in fall, and as a bonus the birds seem to leave the fruit alone throughout winter.

Evergreens and Foliage Plants

Evergreens and foliage plants are absolutely essential for any landscape. They provide a colorful backdrop for other plants to play off of year round. Three colorful evergreens that pop out of the snow with vibrant green and yellow variegated leaves are White Album and Gold Splash® Euonymus fortunei.  For a solid gold version, look up Goldy.  These plants look incredible year round. They are a busy gardener’s dream come true because you basically plant them, water a couple times and they are good to go. I love these types of plants because I don’t have time to be babysitting my garden every day.

Boxwood is always a good standby when it comes to evergreens. These plants form wonderful hedges for walkways, driveways, knot gardens, etc. North Star boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Katerberg’) is a recent introduction through ColorChoice® plants that is noted for its dense, globe shape that requires little if any pruning. It is another perfect choice for the busy gardener.

One plant we northern folks don’t really think about is Abelia, which to my surprise is semi-evergreen in our area. Ruby Anniversary Abelia is ideal for adding color in a white area of your garden. These plants really surprised me, but they do well in the winter landscape. The leaves are fairly showy and are decorated with white bell-shaped flowers in the spring. 


One area that people don’t really think about and I’m a sucker for: is texture. Some people look at me like I’m crazy when I mention some of these ideas, but I find them to be key when designing a garden with movement and life for all four seasons.

Bangle Dyers-Greenwood (Genista lydia ‘Select’), is a plant many people are unfamiliar with, it is by far an underutilized genus, but its texture in the winter and spring is by far one of my favorites (I know I keep saying that, but horticulturists have no limits). This is a great plant for raised beds if you are trying to cover a brick wall. It also is a water conservationist’s ideal plant because it’s very drought tolerant. In the spring when it blooms it is unbelievable - like a carpet of yellow flowers. If you don’t have several of these you need them.

Butterfly bush, Buddleia, is also an ideal plant when it comes to creating texture in the winter garden. Many gardeners cut down the dried flowers during fall cleanup, but I feel that they add texture and movement to the garden and look beautiful with dried grasses and sedum. There are many types of butterfly bush to choose from, including a very compact series called Lo & Behold®. This series comes out of JC Raulston Arboretum and was bred to be dwarf, have a round habit and produce no seed. It is all those things and so much more. This butterfly bush series will definitely change your perspective on this genus.

Another shrub that creates beauty in the winter landscape is Hardy Hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata). This hydrangea is much better than the mophead forms of hydrangea that everyone goes gaga over. This hydrangea can take full sun and is drought tolerant unlike its sister, who is a total water hog. Two varieties that I have in my garden are ‘Limelight’ and Pinky Winky (Hydrangea paniculata). If all of their flowers are not pruned off in the late summer for cuts in the house then don’t cut them off during fall cleanup. They look beautiful whistling in the winter wind. For this species and butterfly bush, pruning will need to occur in early – mid spring for blooming to take place.

Last among the texture plants, but definitely not least is Henry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avelena). The twisted and contorted branches of this plant make it interesting in any season. There is a new variety called ‘Red Majestic’ that is making its way onto the scene. It has the same beautiful form, but is covered with red ‘majestic’ leaves. It is a dramatic addition to the garden and should be placed in a prominent focal area to receive lots of attention.

In closing, winter can be fun if you look at it as a big shopping experience and look forward to the spring ahead when the planting can begin. Remember to not be taken hostage by the flower power of a plant and look for these amazing varieties above that will bring beauty to your garden in the winter time as well. Happy planting!

Patent info: 

Ruby Anniversary Abelia chinensis 'Keiser' PP: 21632; Arctic Fire Cornus stolonifera 'Farrow' PP: 18523: Arctic Sun Cornus sanguinea 'Cato' PP: 19892 Can. PBRAF; Cardinal Candy Viburnum dilatatum 'Henneke' PP: 12870; Proud Berry Symphoricarpos; Blondy® Euonymus fortunei 'Interbolwi' PP: 10424; Gold Splash® Euonymus fortunei 'Roemertwo'; White Album Euonymus fortunei 'Alban' PPAF Can. PBRAF; Goldy Euonymus fortunei 'WALDBOLWI' PP: 16787 Can. PP: 3397;  North Star Buxus sempervirens 'Katerberg' PP: 15998 Can. PP: 2635; Bangle® Genista lydia 'Select’; 'Limelight' Hydrangea paniculata PP: 12874 Can. PP: 2319; Pinky Winky® Hydrangea paniculata 'DVPpinky' PP: 16166 Can. PP: 2892;

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