Winter Garden Beauty

Beguiling berries, beautiful bark, striking stems and stately structure all add pizzazz to what is often a barren landscape for gardeners.

By Jan Wiese-Fales | Photos By Craig Russell, Peter Turner, Oksana Palanychka, Werner Lehmann

Berries and foliage that persist in cold weather are only two of the tricks up Mother Nature’s sleeve to make your winter landscape sparkle. By including plants with appealing shapes, colored branches, interesting bark and eye-catching structure in your yard and gardens, you can create a fourth season of visual interest.

Most of the recommended plants below have even more winter-garden-worthy cultivars than we list here. You’ll find height and USDA Hardiness Zone (HZ) ranges in parentheses.

Beguiling Berries

Winterberry, Ilex verticillata (3’–8′; HZ 2–9), is a native deciduous holly that lights up the winter landscape with brilliant red berries. The very hardy ‘Winter Red’ is a taller variety with abundant fruits, and the award-winning ‘Red Sprite’ is a dwarf variety perfect for small spaces.

Beautyberries, Callicarpa spp. (3’–6′; HZ 5–10), are deciduous shrubs with purple berries that persist into early winter, if not devoured by birds. The native C. americana is the most adaptable variety. It produces the largest berries, though above-ground growth has a tendency to die back over the winter in HZ 5 and northward.

Viburnum shrubs prized for their showy red fruits include V. opulus var. americanum (8’–12′; HZ 2–7), also known as American highbush cranberry.

Beautiful Bark

Tibetan or birch bark cherry, Prunus serrula (20’–30′; HZ 6–8)—with glossy, mahogany-colored bark banded with attractive, lighter rough areas called lenticels—is tops among trees with attractive bark.

Many birches stand out for their stark-white bark and its tendency to attractively exfoliate, or peel, once established. Two lovely white-barked choices are Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, ‘Grayswood Ghost’ (30’–50′; HZ 4–7), and downy birch, B. pubescens (45’–65′; HZ 2–9). A Chinese red birch, B. albosinensis ‘Red Panda’ (30’–50′; HZ 4–7), features gorgeous red bark with thin, white lenticels. River birch, B. nigra (40’–70′; HZ 4-9), has salmon-pink to brownish bark that peels to reveal a creamy-white inner bark.

Paperbark maple, Acer griseum (20’–30′; HZ 4–8), is one of many maples with attractive exfoliating bark. Largish sheets of cinnamon-colored bark peel away to expose rose-brown inner bark.

Striking Stems and Branches

Several dogwood cultivars in the genus Cornus are shrubs with beautifully colored stems. Tatarian dogwood, C. alba ‘Sibirica’ (4’–7′; HZ 3–7), features unusual coral-red stems; a red twig dogwood, C. sericea ‘Cardinal’ (6’–9′; HZ 3–8), sports brilliant red stems; C. alba ‘Siberian Pearls’ (3’–6′; HZ 3–7) offers flaming red color in a more compact growth habit; and the stems of C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ (5’–8′; HZ 3–8) are notable for their sunny yellow color, hence the common name yellow twig dogwood.

Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius (6’–10′; HZ 2–8), is a North American native shrub with many cultivars featuring a wide spectrum of colorful foliage, arching growth habits and stems with exfoliating bark. 

Stately Structure

Harry Lauder’s walking stick, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (8’–10′; HZ 4–9), with its twisted, spiraling branches, has few peers when it comes to structural interest.

Grasses as structural additions soften harsh winter landscapes. Prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis (2’–3′; HZ 3–9), is an arching, fine-textured grass, which glows golden-orange in fall, then light bronze in winter. Various cultivars of Chinese or Japanese silver grass, Miscanthus sinensis (4’–8′; HZ 3–9), provide a variety of colors, shapes and heights—all with feathery plumes above graceful, arching foliage. ‘Malepartus’ and ‘Siberpfeil’ both do well in colder climates.