As flowers go to seed and all the vibrant shades of green fade to browns and greys in the late fall and winter garden, it’s nice to have winter interest plants to add a little visual oomph to the landscape. Now that doesn’t necessarily have to mean something that blooms, though witch hazel is a lovely exception. I’m talking more along the lines of faded plants, blooms, sedges, and seed heads that provide structure and shape, colorful stems or bark, or evergreen choices that add a dash of color in between snowfalls.
Speaking of snow, this article doesn’t account for everything being buried in a sea of white. For the times when there has been a light snow, or everything is drab and wet, I’m going to share a few winter interest plants you can add to your garden center list. If you don’t have something pretty to look at this year, you can dream ahead to next winter!
A list of favorite winter interest plants
As you draft your must-haves for the garden, consider plants that have months of blooms (rather than days or weeks) and others that look interesting even after the flowers have long since withered away.
Liatris, aka gayfeather and blazing star, is one of my favorite perennials The fluffy-looking flowers appear on long stems. I like to compare them to a Fraggle or Muppet. This North American native plant is a pollinator magnet. It looks great in the winter garden because those unique blooms look like little scrub brushes in the landscape. The seeds feed the birds, and the plants provide shelter for overwintering insects. I’ve found a praying mantis egg case on the side of a plant in spring. Liatris plants frow from corms, but I bought mine as a sizeable perennial from a garden center. They are drought tolerant and grow in full sun.
Coneflower seed heads also provide a great winter landscape visual. Those Fibonacci centers eventually dry out and feed the birds. I have a few different varieties in my front yard garden. Over time, a small clump will spread, filling in empty spots in the garden and flowering from summer through fall. This full-sun plant grows well in my dry front yard garden.
I never thought of garlic chives as a good winter interest plant until an ice storm completely encased the dried blooms. They make a great border plant and also nicely fill in spots in the garden with their reliably green foliage. Another bonus? The flowers and stems are edible. But if you leave them in the garden, in their full-sun spot, they look nice, too.
Every year, witch hazel is on my plant list, but I always forget by the time spring rolls around. Then I’ll be on a walk in the winter and spot those gorgeous yellow flowers that are like starbursts in someone’s garden and lament the fact I haven’t planted one yet. Also called winterbloom, because of the time of year it blooms, there are three species of witch hazel that are native to North America. This is another plant with alien-like blooms, that resemble the hair on a Jim Henson character. Witch hazel prefers a part of the garden that gets partial shade.
Corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) is a deciduous shrub with gnarled, curly branches that look like a sculpture in the garden. Can I say sculptural interest? When covered in snow, the branches resemble tentacles, desperate to escape. And in late winter, early spring, before much of the garden has awoken from its season-long nap, catkins appear. Plant this shrub in an area that has well-drained soil, and that gets full sun to partial shade
Holly is a pretty ubiquitous holiday symbol and plant—it has its own Christmas carol! Outside in the garden, holly provides a reliable shot of dark green foliage in a drab winter snowscape. There are some beautiful variegated varieties as well. I had a holly bush in the backyard of my first home and enjoyed the color it brought to the winter garden. These hollies are evergreen. Evergreen holly varieties include American holly (Ilex opaca), while others, like mountain holly (Ilex mucronata), are deciduous.
Though winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is in the same family as the holly mentioned above, it is not known for its winter foliage as it’s decidous. It’s the bright red berries that remain in the landscape in the winter. That is, if they’re not devoured by hungry birds. According to the National Audubon Society, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers, American robins, and Eastern bluebirds, among others, enjoy the berries. And it’s worth noting that only female plants that have been fertilized by a male plant will produce those red berries, so you need to grow more than one. Hardy down to zone
There are a lot of varieties of sedum that look really interesting in a winter landscape—provided they’re not covered in snow. Many of these plants that flourish in the hot, sunny, dry weather of summer are also incredibly winter hardy. These include both groundcovers and clumping plants. Autumn Joy in my garden forms these big flower clusters that look incredible once they dry and help to feed the birds. The flowers also flag where the new growth starts to appear in late spring.
I gather most of the materials for my winter container from my yard or forage on walks. But I have bought the odd material to accessorize my urn and that includes red and yellow dogwood branches. Red Osier, or red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), is a native variety that grows in my region. Midwinter Fire (Cornus sanguinea) and white dogwood (Cornus alba). These are great examples of multi-season interest. The shrub itself has elegant green leaves on red stems. And at a certain point in the season, these puffy clusters of white flowers appear. And then that foliage turns a lovely shade of red to match the stems in fall, giving way to a winter interest plant. Red Osier likes medium to wet soil and a part shade to full sun spot in the garden.
Queen Anne’s Lace
I don’t think anybody plants Queen Anne’s lace, but where I live, it’s a pretty common wildflower. It’s often in ditches and fields, and at the edge of forests. And as the flowers form seeds, they turn inwards on themselves, forming these pretty little dried cups.
Other options for winter interest plants
Pretty much any evergreen tree is a great winter interest option. We have a few articles on a number of cool-looking choices, from conifers to groundcovers:
- Add meadow grasses for year-round interest
- Dwarf evergreen trees for the yard and garden
- Compact evergreen shrubs for small-space gardens
- Weeping cedar trees: Weeping Blue Atlas and Weeping Alaskan cedar
- There are also a number of lovely evergreen groundcovers you can add to a garden.
- Trees with peeling bark, like the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) with sheets that look like cinnamon and river birch (Betula nigra) provide interesting colors and textures in winter.
- Low-growing shrub options include dwarf Hinoki cypress and mugo pine.
Pin this to your list of plant picks for nursery browsing
I have been worried about the amount of rain we are receiving this winter and wonder if you have any suggestions for keeping top soil from runoff? Do you use pine needles or any materials to help insulate and protect plants?
Tara Nolan says
Hi Ben, I have a lot of leaves in my yard, so I rake them into my gardens as compost and a winter mulch. Leaves that end up on my driveway and walkways get chopped up first before they’re placed in the garden.