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Timeline Through Landscape Design

A blog to guide home gardeners with seasonal landscape improvements.
1GC redtwig-dogwood

Plants for Winter Interest


In our Illinois climate, gardeners can take advantage of the changing seasons with landscape plants that show their true colors in winter. Just as a gardener plans a perennial flower bed based on bloom times, you should think about the larger characteristics of the landscape by selecting trees, shrubs, grasses, and groundcovers with showy winter features. Many plants will make a fine display, whether through their bright colors, unique branch structure, textured bark, dried seed heads, or persistent berries. When developing a plant list or adding new plants to existing landscapes, consider these choice plants for winter interest.

Trees

For berries: Washington Hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) is a 30-foot tall native tree that grows best in full sun and well-drained soil. The reddish berry-like fruits appear in September, persist into spring, and are most showy in late fall to winter, especially in front of evergreens or with snowfall.

For bark: Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) is 20 to 30 feet tall with a 15- to 25-foot spread that grows in full sun to partial shade in moist, well-drained soil. It is outstanding in all seasons but especially noticeable in winter months as the copper-red, cinnamon bark begins to exfoliate in the second year.

For shape: Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), a 20- to 35-foot tall native understory tree, prefers shade to part shade and rich, moist, well-drained soil. The branch structure is charming, and when the tree is adorned with snow the shape is highlighted nicely. The rusty colored under-bark has a nice winter display, and brown fruit pods can persist through winter. Besides these great winter features, this tree has outstanding pink blooms in spring. For even more interest, be on the lookout for cultivars with weeping habits. Eastern Redbud can be relatively short-lived and weak-wooded. Keeping up on proper pruning will benefit this species.

Shrubs

For colorful stems: Redosier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) is a native shrub that grows 7 to 9 feet tall in full sun to moderate shade and does well in a wide range of soils. The shrub is most effective planted in groupings and placed against evergreens or a contrasting backdrop that will highlight its bright red stems. For the best display, regularly perform renewal pruning (removal of the oldest stems to the ground), since new stems have the brightest color.

For shape: Harry Lauder's Walking Stick (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') is an 8- to 10-foot tall grafted shrub that grows in full sun to part shade and does well in large containers. It can have decent fall color, but it is after leaves fall that its most striking feature – extremely gnarled branches – is exposed. Additionally, in late winter to early spring greenish-yellow blooms (pendulous catkins) appear. This is truly a one-of-a-kind specimen.

For winter blooms: Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), a 20- to 30-foot tall native large shrub or small tree, prefers full sun to moderate shade. It is durable, prefers moist soils, and can be used as a specimen tree or for naturalizing. After an outstanding show of yellow fall color, the truly exceptional display comes after the leaves fall, when fragrant, delicate yellow flowers appear in October to December. The petals actually roll up on cold days.

Groundcovers (evergreen and semi-evergreen)

For color and texture:


Russian Cypress (Microbiota decussate) is a spreading evergreen groundcover, 12 inches tall with a 12- to 15-foot spread. It performs best in full sun on well-drained soils. When placed in shady areas, the growth is slowed and branching becomes very open. Its uniform circular spread and flat-topped branching work well along stairs and banks. The bronze to burgundy foliage that appears in winter looks best in northern climates; foliage can look brown in southern parts of the state and if placed in too much shade.

Allegheny Pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) is a broadleaf semi-evergreen groundcover, 6 to 12 inches tall, that is native to North America in parts of the east and southeast. It grows well in partial to full shade in acidic, moist, well-drained soils. The uniform growth habit adds a green blanket to the winter landscape. It performs best in shaded protected areas and is a nice alternative to the Japanese species. Somewhat showy white to pinkish flowers appear in the spring.

Perennials and Grasses

Ornamental grasses and dried seed heads from perennials add wonderful charm to the winter landscape. Left standing through winter, these plants also provide much-needed food for birds and shelter for butterflies and other beneficial insects.

For seed heads:

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurium) is a native perennial with daisylike flowers that grows 2 to 4 feet tall, prefers full sun and well-drained soil, and tolerates heat and drought once established. The jet-black seed heads that remain through winter are known for attracting birds, along with adding dimension to the winter landscape. Many cultivars are available, but keep in mind that the straight species will support the most native wildlife.

Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) is a native grass that grows 2 to 3 feet tall with an upright, arching habit. It prefers fertile, moist, well-drained soils but will tolerate some drought. The flat seed heads turn rusty brown and foliage becomes bronze to add great character to the winter landscape. This plant can be aggressive because of seed heads and rhizomes.

These suggestions are just a few of many landscape plants offering unique winter interest. Before committing to long-term landscape installations, be sure to do your research. Each season, observe how trees and shrubs perform in your region. Along with exploring pictures online, taking a trip to a local arboretum or conservatory would be beneficial. U of I Extension has two websites for selecting trees and shrubs for your home: extension.illinois.edu/treeselector and extension.illinois.edu/shrubselector/


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