Winter Flowering Shrubs

Shrubs can add interest to a winter landscape

By: Sandy Feather ©2015
Penn State Extension

Q. I was wondering if you could help me to identify some tree and shrubs that bloom in winter in Pennsylvania, USDA Zones 5-7.

A. While there are a few plants that bloom in winter, do not discount the interest that fruits, colorful bark and evergreen foliage add to those gray winter months in Pennsylvania. They can make a big impact, especially planted en masse. Also, please be aware that there is a big difference between USDA Zone 5 and USDA Zone 7; last winter’s polar vortex made that painfully clear to many gardeners. The plants discussed below are hardy at least to USDA Zone 6.

Trees & shrubs that flower in winter

Corneliancherry Dogwood (Cornus mas) – This small tree blooms with clusters of yellow flowers from late February through March on bare branches while the rest of the landscape is cloaked in winter’s gray. The bright red fruits that mature in late summer are attractive and edible (in jellies and preserves). It grows best in full sun to part shade and well-drained soils. Corneliancherry dogwood grows 15-25 feet tall with a similar spread.

Winter Heath (Erica carnea) – Native to the European Alps, winter heath grows best in full to part sun and acidic, very well drained soil. This shrub can bloom from late fall through late winter/early spring, depending on the cultivar. Grows about a foot tall with similar or slightly greater spread. Well-drained, acidic soil is a must.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) – This hybrid between Japanese witch-hazel and Chinese witch-hazel is one of the best shrubs for winter flower power. Witch-hazel grows best in full sun and evenly moist, yet well-drained soil. Flower color ranges from pale yellow to bright gold to orange-red, appearing between January and March and persisting for up to a month. Some cultivars have superb fragrance and fall color. Grows 10-20 feet tall with a comparable or slightly greater spread.

Winter Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) – This winter-flowering vine is best displayed as a groundcover on a bank or trailing over a sturdy wall. It is naive to eastern Asia and western China, and is very adaptable to light and soil conditions. It can grow in deep shade or full sun, although it blooms best in full sun. It prefers well-drained, evenly moist soil, but is quite tolerant of clay as long as it drains, and is not fussy about pH. Winter jasmine’s stems remain green through winter, and the bright yellow flowers appear in February and March. Despite the name, the flowers are not fragrant. It grows 10-15 feet tall with a 3-6-foot spread.

‘Dawn’ Bodnant Viburnum (Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’) – This is a hybrid between two other species of viburnum, valued for its fragrant, rosy-pink flowers that appear from late winter through early spring. It grows best in full sun to part shade, and evenly moist, well-drained soil. It is a good idea to give this shrub a sheltered location so that its extra-early blooms are not spoiled by frost. ‘Dawn’ grows 8-10 feet tall and 4-6 feet wide.


Trees & shrubs with colorful stems & bark

Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) – This small tree is attractive in all seasons, with blue-green trifoliate leaves in summer and sometimes good red fall color. The cinnamon-brown exfoliating bark is the star of the show in winter, revealing rich reddish-brown tones beneath that often appears to have buffed to a satin shine. Paperbark maple grows 20-30 feet tall with a spread about half the height.

Tartarian Dogwood (Cornus alba) – Tartarian dogwood is one of several shrub dogwoods that have colorful stems in winter. They bloom in spring with flat-topped clusters of white flowers that are followed by white or bluish fruits that are attractive to birds. This is a very adaptable shrub that grows in heavy shade to full sun and average to wet soils. There are cultivars with variegated or gold foliage, and all have stems that turn red in fall and remain attractive through winter. Best planted en masse to have an impact. Grows 8-10 feet tall with a similar or slightly smaller spread. Native to Asia.

Bloodtwig Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) – Like the previous shrub, bloodtwig dogwood is grown primarily for its colorful winter stems. It is also very adaptable, growing in full sun to partial shade, but does prefer well-drained, evenly moist soil. Stem color ranges from yellow-green (‘Viridissima’) to multicolored stems that are red at the base, grading to orange, and then yellow at the tips (‘Midwinter Fire’ and Arctic Sun™). Depending on the cultivar, bloodtwig dogwood grows 5- 15 feet tall with a similar spread. Native to Europe.

freezing rain
Freezing rain added interest to this weeping Beech

Redosier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) – This shrub dogwood is native across much of the United States and Canada, except the Deep South. Like the previous shrubs, it is very adaptable to growing conditions and tolerates full sun to part shade and average garden soil to wet soils; often found on swampy sites in the wild. Stem color ranges from deep red to bright yellow-green. Redosier dogwood grows 5-10 feet tall with a similar or greater spread.

‘Winter King’ Green Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’) – The straight species is native to much of the Midwestern and eastern United States. ‘Winter King’ is a true four-season tree, starting with white flowers in May, clean summer foliage, attractive red fruits that ripen in fall and persist well into winter, and exfoliating bark that reveals the light orange inner bark beneath. Older branches are a silvery-gray color that is attractive in own right. ‘Winter King’ grows best in full to partial sun and moist, well-drained soil, but is tolerant of poor, compacted soil and drought as long as the soil drains well. Grows 20-35 tall with a similar spread.

Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) – This small tree develops exfoliating bark as it matures, revealing shades of gray, green, white and brown. It blooms in late February or early March, but the flowers are small, and the showiest parts are the red stamens. Persian ironwood has superb fall color in shades of red, yellow and orange.  It grows best in full sun to part shade and well-drained, slightly acidic soil. This tree grows 20-40 feet tall with a slightly smaller spread.


winter ice
Frozen ice flow from hillside rock strata

Coral Bark Willow (Salix alba ‘Flame’) – This multi-stemmed shrub grows 12 feet tall and sports brilliant red winter stems. Coral bark willow grows best in full sun and moist soils. Cut back annually for best stem color and size control.

Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) – This small tree develops exfoliating bark as it matures that reveals patterns of gray, orange and reddish-brown. It blooms in late spring-early summer with 2-3-inch white flowers with golden anthers. It also develops good red fall color. Japanese stewartia grows 20-40 feet tall with a similar spread.


Trees & shrubs with attractive fruits

Crabapple (Malus spp.) – There are many different species and cultivars of crabapples that have a variety of growth habits – from upright-oval to weeping – and many have small, attractive fruits that persist well into winter. Crabapples grow best in full sun and well-drained soil. They are adaptable to clay soil as long as it drains well. Size ranges from 6-25 feet tall, depending on the cultivar or species.

Flowering crabapple
Flowering Crabapple

American Holly (Ilex opaca) – American holly is native from New York to Florida, west to Illinois and Texas. This slow growing tree is evergreen, and the female clones are adorned with bright red fruit through the winter months. The only downside is that they are relatively large at maturity – 40-50 feet tall and 18-40 feet wide – and you must plant a male along with a female to enjoy those red fruits. American holly grows best in evenly moist, well-drained, acidic soil rich in organic matter in full sun or partial shade. Like all broadleaved evergreens, American holly should be protected from winter wind and sun.

American Holly
American Holly is an evergreen

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) - Winterberry holly is native to eastern North America. There are many named cultivars that range in size from 4-10 (12) feet tall with a similar spread. Like American holly, a mix of male and female clones is necessary to enjoy those bright red fruits through the winter. The fruit is attractive to a number of species of birds and is an important late winter source of food for them.


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