Extension Educator, Horticulture
Snow sets off color in the landscape. Evergreens look more intensely green. Even subtle shades of browns and grays look more intriguing. However for a spectacular winter landscape, add some shrubs with interesting bark or twig color.
Redtwig dogwoods are quite beautiful in mass in front of evergreens or blanketed with snow. Shrub dogwoods are tough, withstanding wind, wet, drought and just about anything else. In addition, birds enjoy the fruits.
Shrub dogwoods do require regular pruning to keep the plants healthy and to keep the bright red stems. Regular removal pruning of about one third of the old stems each year in early spring will also keep scale insect populations in control. Actually shrub dogwoods are great plants to try out your pruning techniques since they are very forgiving and can even be cut to the ground each spring.
Some good redtwig selections are 'Cardinal', 'Isanti' or 'Siberica'. 'Siberica' has coral red coloration to the stems. A nice plant for shady spots is 'Argenteo-marginata' sometimes listed as 'Elegantissima' with its creamy white leaves and red stems. 'Kelseyi' is a nice compact form at about two feet tall although in some years leaf spots can be aesthetically unpleasing. 'Flaviramea' has bright yellow twigs.
Japanese Kerria, Kerria japonica, has very attractive yellow-green, fine textured twigs. It is another tough plant and in highly fertile soils can become somewhat weedy as it suckers from the roots. It does well even in full shade. The attractive yellow flowers start in May for two to three weeks and sporadically over the summer. It should be pruned after flowering to keep it dense and can even be cut to the ground. 'Picta' has green leaves with white margins. 'Pleniflora' has golden yellow double flowers that last longer and are larger than the species.
Blueberry shrubs are not usually considered for their beauty in the landscape. However the white flowers, tasty blue fruit and maroon fall color offer a four-season appeal. In addition the young stems take on a two-tone effect of deep red and yellow green that is quite lovely in winter.
One plant you may not be familiar with is Seven-son Flower, Heptacodium miconioides. It was introduced from China in 1980 and has just recently become the rage with good reason. Seven-son flower grows to 10 to 20 feet tall with an upright spreading habit. I have also seen it pruned to a single stem tree. As a young plant it is somewhat gangly, but it quickly grows into its skin after a few years.
Seven-son flower prefers full sun and moist soil but will tolerate shade. The flowers are creamy white and fragrant appearing in August and even sporadically into October. The real appeal is in October and November when the sepals of the flowers turn deep red for a very nice and long lasting show. In winter the bark peels in lovely light brown strips.
Winter lasts too long to be forgotten when planning your landscape. If you need something to curl up with, I recommend Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs by Michael Dirr, a Timber Press publication. Michael Dirr was a professor at the U of I and has continued to make his name in the woody plant world. His book has excellent pictures and information. It includes some useful lists of characteristics of trees, shrubs and vines such as fruit or flower color, flower sequence or growing conditions. My favorite is a listing of whether the plant blooms on old or new wood. This is crucial information when your pruners are hot and you need to know if you can hack it down in spring or have to wait until after it flowers.