“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape – the loneliness of it – the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it – the whole story doesn’t show.”
~ Andrew Wyeth
I grew up near Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Brandywine Valley. The American painter, Andrew Wyeth, drew his inspiration from this place, beautifully capturing the winter landscape in a subdued mix of browns, whites, tans and grays. My winters were painted in the same palette, made all the more rich by the stark outlines of bare branches silhouetted against a white sky. Nature sure knew how to create a lot of winter interest.
Andrew Wyeth Winter Farm Scene
THE MAGIC OF WINTER INTEREST
Wyeth was known to prefer winter and its accompanying interplay of light and shadow. He saw a particular beauty in the stark winter landscape. In depicting trees, shrubs and grasses stripped of their summer foliage, he exposed fantastic sculptures and new shades and patterns. These are the same elements that create winter interest.
In selecting plants that play with dark and light, or exhibit interesting structural characteristics, you too can build a dramatic winter landscape. These components can include peeling bark, colorful branches or forms, flowers, cones, berries and fruits. Certain shrubs, when bared of their leaves, also reveal visually arresting architectures not seen in the summer. And the dried forms of perennials can add movement and texture if you leave them to overwinter in the garden.
Here are some of my favorite plants for creating winter interest in the garden. See if one (or a few) of these beauties doesn’t work for you.
Many trees have interesting bark that peels, splits or sheds to reveal new forms and colors. They also exhibit an interesting interplay of light and shadow.
River Birch Bark: One of the best. It loses its bark in big, papery shreds to reveal a smooth, gray to cinnamon-brown wood underneath. The cultivar ‘Heritage’ sheds to reveal salmon- or white colored bark.
Crape Myrtle: Smooth polished bark and a vase like shape are hallmarks of this spectacular ornamental that is equally as interesting in winter as it is in summer. White-flowered ‘Natchez’ develops spectacular cinnamon-brown, mottled exfoliating bark after about 5 years.
Paperbark Maple: this small ornamental tree’s exfoliating cinnamon-red bark peels in large curls to reveal pinkish-brown inner bark. A unique feature of the tree is that the peels stay on the trunk rather than falling to the ground.
COLORFUL BRANCHES ARE KEY TO WINTER INTEREST
When other shrubs sleep, these plants are at the peak of their color. Plant species with vibrant branches in groups, to create broad swaths of rich winter color.
Redtwig Dogwood, also known as Redosier dogwood: Fiery red stems and a loose growth habit characterize this stunning plant. Exposure to summer sun brings out the best winter color.
Yellowtwig Dogwood is a dogwood cultivar with a spreading habit and outstanding bright yellow winter stems.
Oakleaf Hydrangea: I love the way the brownish form of this graceful shrub drapes over the winter landscape, especially with the dried blossoms still attached. An added bonus is that the cinnamon-brown bark of mature plants also exfoliates.
WINTER INTEREST FRUITS AND BERRIES
In addition to providing food for hungry birds, shrubs with fruits and berries create winter interest by adding splashes of vibrant color to the subdued winter landscape.
Winterberry Holly: This deciduous holly native to eastern North America is known for its spectacular red berries that appear in profusion on bare winter branches and persist until spring.
Firethorn (Pyracantha): An evergreen shrub with shiny leaves that produces large quantities of red or orange berries that remain on the bush for most of the winter.
Viburnum dentatum: ‘Blue Muffin’ is a cultivar with bright blue berries that appear on bare branches as early as December.
Crabapple (Malus): Among the many beautiful cultivars available, I prefer the vase-shaped ‘Harvest Gold’ for its large, bright-yellow fruits that last well into the winter.
WINTER FLOWERING SHRUBS AND TREES
What could be better than a plant that flowers in the winter? Surprisingly, there are quite a few species that fit the bill.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis): I love all witch hazels and particularly Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese witch hazel, for its fragrant, large-sized yellow blooms and long bloom period (January through March).
Winter Daphne (Daphne odora): A broadleaf evergreen shrub with intensely fragrant reddish-purple flowers. Flowers bloom in late January to March.
Japanese Camellia: For vibrant winter color, almost nothing beats the showy flowers of the species bred specifically for cold weather, Camellia japonica. There are thousands of cultivars to choose from displaying a wide variety of flower colors and forms. Some varieties have blooms as large as 5 inches appearing atop glossy green foliage from January through March.
Ornamental grasses add texture, color and movement to the landscape. Moreover, they provide an especially interesting contrast with evergreen plants. In addition to creating winter interest, they also furnish food and shelter for birds.
Feather Reed Grass is an upright, clump forming grass that is semi-evergreen, so it retains some of its color in the winter. White, red or yellow flowers change to a soft tan in the fall and persist through the winter.
Little Bluestem Grass: This little gem features upright clumps of slender green leaves tinged blue at the base that turn orangey-brown in fall. Clusters of fluffy white seed heads follow the flowers and remain attractive well into winter.
Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg where it comes to plants with winter interest. For ideas for early-blooming bulbs, check out my blog post on minor bulbs. Or visit Winterthur Gardens’ March Bank where tiny winter flowers are already poking their heads out of the ground.