Plants for the Winter Landscape

— Written By John Murphy and last updated by Emily Capps
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Despite what the calendar says regarding the official start of winter, for me a prime indicator that fall has passed and winter has arrived is the blooming of native witch hazel. These shrubby plants found in the woods have curious flowers resembling shredded yellow paper. These fragrant flowers will persist for some time. It is one of many plants that bring interest to the winter landscape.

The winter landscape eschews the flashy flowers of spring. But instead relies on subtle attractions and sharper views. Nevertheless these elements still are strongly appealing. Gone are the leaves that mask the interesting architecture of trees like weeping Japanese maples and Harry Lauder’s walking stick. Some trees have unusual bark qualities that add an extra element of interest. Trees like paperbark maple, river and paper birch and kousa dogwood have exfoliating bark. Red and yellow twig dogwoods and a few Japanese maples have brightly colored stems. And just clearer views of the texture and color of bark from sourwoods, tulip poplars and oaks are very engaging.

Dried flower and seed heads of hydrangeas, clethra, sedums and grasses that remain in the garden add beauty. Some of these can also be food sources for foraging birds that hang out through the winter. Deciduous hollies display berries in winter that are not only attractive but can also draw in birds.

Winter is a time for conifers to shine and stand out next to their bare deciduous cousins. Many varieties and forms of pines, firs and false cypress and others provide contrast to the naked stems of other plants.

Flowers are not completely absent from the winter landscape. Winter jasmine, a scrambling shrub, will burst out in a chorus of yellow flowers in January. Edegworthia is a surprisingly wonderful shrub that displays a cluster of creamy flowers on their mid-winter bare sticks. The sweet fragrance is often the first thing you notice on this plant. While this is a zone 7 plant, they can do well planted in a protected spot in zone 6. Hellebores—first Christmas rose, then Lenten rose will bloom in an impressive range of colors, from white to purple to black and stay in bloom into spring. Even on the coldest of days, camellias boldly show off their colorful blooms.

Not too long into winter, bulbs will emerge such as snow drops, crocus, and early irises followed by daffodils and many more that indicate spring is not very far off. And the cycle continues.

paperbark maple

Exfoliating bark of paperbark maple with snow

Japanese maple

The architecture of a Japanese maple is clearly seen without leaves


Dried flower heads of hydrangeas