In the Garden:
Finding the fragrant yellow flowers of our native witchhazel on a tree in November is a pleasant surprise.
Natives in the Fall and Winter Landscape
Although the garden in late fall and winter may not have the colorful draw of the other seasons, 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 structural elements, such as fences, arbors, and sculpture, as well as natural elements of evergreen foliage, bark, colorful berries, seedpods and twigs, along with winter bloomers like witchhazels. Using native plants offers additional bonuses -- they are well-suited to weather whatever Mother Nature sends their way during the months of cold, and they offer the greatest benefit to wildlife in all seasons.
Witchhazels for Winter Flowers
Native, fall-blooming witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) has finely textured, fragrant yellow flowers that bring a bright note to the garden from mid-fall through early winter. Growing naturally in moist, shady conditions, this 15- to 20-foot-tall, multi-stemmed tree is also adaptable to somewhat sunnier, drier sites. The flowers appear from October into December. To carry on the show, look to another native, vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) for bloom in January and February. This forms a shrub reaching just 6 to 10 feet tall. Both species have golden fall color. Although not quite as spectacular as the non-native hybrid cultivars (Hamamelis x intermedia), our native witch hazels should certainly be on any gardener's list of plants to consider.
Berries and Stems
No garden with enough space should be without native winterberry (Ilex verticillata). The 8- to 10-foot-tall and wide deciduous shrubs are covered in brilliant red berries that ignite the fall and winter landscape. 'Winter Red' is considered one of the best varieties with its fruits that persist until spring. Where smaller plants are better suited, consider 'Red Sprite', which grows just 3 to 5 feet high and wide. Berries are borne only on female plants; you'll need at least one male in the vicinity to provide pollen. Plant the male 'Southern Gentleman' to pollinate 'Winter Red'; early blooming 'Jim Dandy will pollinate 'Red Sprite.'
Other berried natives to consider include bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), coralberry (S. orbiculatus) and of course, the many viburnums, including maple leaf viburnum (V. acerifolium), arrowwood (V. dentatum), nannyberry (V. lentago), and American cranberrybush (V. opulus var. americanum, also listed as V. trilobum).
Colorful stems are another option for brightening the winter landscape. A notable choice is the shrubby red osier or red-stem dogwood (Cornus sericea), growing 4 to 8 feet tall with a spread to 10 feet. Although naturally growing in wet areas, it is adaptable to drier spots. 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 and 'Flaviramea' has yellow stems. C. sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire', another similar shrubby dogwood, has stems combining red, yellow, and orange,
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.
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 gorgeous exfoliating orange-red bark
Ornamental grasses add texture and color as well as the sound to the winter landscape. There is a wealth of native grasses to use, instead of 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), 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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