Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
November, 2006
Regional Report

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Finding the fragrant yellow flowers of our native witchhazel on a tree in November is a pleasant surprise.

Enriching the Winter Garden with Native Plants

"Landscaping for winter interest" is more than a catch phrase. Although the garden in winter may not have the colorful draw of spring and summer, or even of fall, having something pleasant to look at during the winter -- at least while gazing out the windows -- is important for anyone whose life revolves around the outdoors. The pleasures of the winter garden center on the forms of manmade elements, such as fences, arbors, and sculpture; as well as the natural elements of evergreen foliage, bark, colorful berries and twigs, and winter bloomers such as hellebores and witchhazels. In fact, it was coming upon a garden planting of the native, fall-blooming witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana, that got me to thinking about landscaping for winter beauty.

Witchhazels for Flowers all Winter
The finely textured, fragrant yellow flowers on the 15- to 20-foot-tall, multistemmed witchhazel trees brought a bright note to an otherwise dreary and cold rainy day. Naturally growing in moist, shady conditions, this tree is also adaptable to somewhat sunnier, drier sites. The flowers appear from October into December. To carry on the theme, look to native vernal witchhazel, Hamamelis vernalis, for bloom in January and February. It grows to just 6 to 10 feet. Both species have golden fall color. Although not quite as spectacular as the Asian species, our native witchhazels should certainly be on any gardener's list of plants to consider.

Berries and Stems
Because of my penchant for native plants, I began to look for other plants found in at least part of our region that might offer a contribution to the winter garden. Hardly any other genus can compare with that of the hollies, or Ilex. In my opinion, no garden should be without winterberry (Ilex verticillata). The 8- to 10-foot-tall and wide deciduous shrubs, covered in brilliant red berries ignite the landscape. 'Winter Red' is considered the best variety, with its fruits that persist until spring. Where smaller plants are better suited, consider 'Red Sprite', which grows 3 to 5 feet high and wide.

While on the subject of berried natives, also consider bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), the various sumacs (Rhus coppalina, R. glabra, and R. typhina), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), coralberry (S. orbiculatus) and, of course, the viburnums, including maple leaf viburnum (V. acerifolium), arrowwood (V. dentatum), nannyberry (V. lentago), withered or possum haw (V. nudum), American cranberrybush (V. opulus var. americanum, also listed as V. trilobum), and black haw (V. prunifolium). Besides the landscape color they contribute, most berried plants also provide food for birds and mammals.

Colorful stems are another option for brightening the winter landscape. The most notable choice is the red osier or red-stem dogwood (Cornus sericea, also listed as C. stolonifera). These are shrubby, multi-stemmed plants growing 4 to 8 feet tall with a spread to 10 feet. Although naturally growing in wet areas, it is adaptable to drought. The stems are gray-green in summer but turn red with cool fall weather. Younger stems have the best color, so plan on cutting the plants back to the ground in the spring. The cultivar 'Cardinal' is an especially colorful red-orange; 'Midwinter Fire' has stems combining red, yellow, and orange, and 'Flaviramea' has yellow stems.

Forever Green
Evergreens are, of course, the visual mainstay of the winter garden, plus they offer excellent shelter for birds. Again, we can return to the holly clan. Inkberry (Ilex glabra) has 1- to 2-inch-long, pointed, oval leaves and is very adaptable as to light and soil. 'Shamrock', considered the best variety, grows to 5 feet tall and wide. The magnificent American holly (Ilex opaca) grows in a conical shape to 50 feet tall and has scalloped-edged, spine-tipped leaves and red berries, although among the thousand or so cultivars, there are yellow- and orange-berried forms as well.

Among the needled evergreen trees to consider are white, Virginia, and jack pines (Pinus strobus, P.virginiana, and P. banksiana), eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), American arborvitae or northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). If red cedar was rare, we would think it incredible for its adaptability and beauty, so don't overlook it; among the available cultivars is 'Grey Owl', a long, spreading form with silvery foliage. Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is usually semi-evergreen in our region.

Besides inkberry and 'Grey Owl', another evergreen native shrub is rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), growing to 10 feet tall or more with pale pink blooms in early summer. While similar in size and hardiness, catawba rhododendron (R. catawbiense) has violet pink flowers in spring. Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is another broad-leaved evergreen to consider, even though it can be a bit of a challenge to grow unless cool, moist conditions are provided.

Every Shape and Form
At first you may think that deciduous trees don't contribute anything terribly exciting to the winter landscape, but take time to appreciate their various shapes, branching patterns, and, most especially, their bark. Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia), and sassafras (S. albidum) all have horizontal branching or upturned branches that beautifully catch the snow.

River birch (Betula nigra) is a popular landscape plant because of its exfoliating orange-red bark. The deciduous tree contributing the most spectacular effect is the sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), with its beautiful white underbark. As these trees can become quite massive, they are seldom used in gardens, but I encourage you to appreciate them in the wild.

Graceful Grasses
Ornamental grasses have held sway in the winter garden for their texture and color as well as the sounds they bring. There is a wealth of native grasses to use, thereby replacing some of the foreign grasses that are becoming invasive. Look to the many new switchgrass (Panicum) cultivars, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), giant plume grass (Saccharum giganteum), and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), among others.

These suggestions but scratch the surface of the possibilities of native plants that can enrich the winter garden experience. Let yourself be inspired to look around this winter, both in the wild and in yards, to see which plants might make your garden more enjoyable in future years.

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