Landscape Plants with Great Winter Interest

Three Master Gardener favorites

By: P.A. Flinn, Elise Ford & Barbara Murphy
Penn State Master Gardeners ©2016

When most of us think of winter interest in the garden, evergreens come to mind. But there’s more than needles to see if you look closely. Attractive seed heads, berries and bark are just a few of the things that come to the fore when it’s cold. Here are three plants chosen by local master gardeners that offer great winter interest.

By Elise Ford

When all else is drab or solemnly evergreen in the winter landscape, the bright red fruits of winterberry hollies take center stage.

Ilex verticillata is a deciduous, 6- to- 10-foot shrub native to eastern North America and hardy in USDA zones 3-9. Wild winterberries are found in swampy areas or along low-lying river and stream banks that periodically flood.

Winterberry in Summer

The flowers are small and almost inconspicuous but popular with pollinators, especially honeybees. Quarter-inch round, bright red fruits ripen in September and persist on plants until December or January. Some varieties keep their colorful fruit until March or April. There also are winterberry cultivars with orange or gold fruit.

The berries are eaten by many bird species but are not their first food choice since they have a low fat content. They are more likely to be eaten in late winter when other food sources are depleted. Cut some berried branches to enjoy inside during the holidays.

These shrubs thrive in rain gardens but also will do well in loamy garden soil that is moist, acidic, well-drained and organically rich. Site plants in full sun for best fruit production. It suckers from its roots, forming multistemmed clumps ideal for stabilizing hillsides. Mass plants in the shrub border to maximize the berry display.

Winterberry hollies are dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants. One male plant will pollinate five female plants and should be planted close by. To ensure pollination, it is important to choose a male pollinator that blooms at the same time as the female plants. Here are some good pollinator combinations:

• ‘Red Sprite,’ an early-blooming, female dwarf cultivar, with the male ‘Jim Dandy’

• ‘Winter Red’, ‘Winter Gold’ and ‘Sparkleberry’, all late-blooming females, with ‘Apollo’ or ‘Southern Gentleman.’

• ‘Raritan Chief' is considered a universal male pollinator because of its long bloom time and can be planted with most female cultivars.


Red twig dogwoods
By P.A. Flinn

This is a deciduous shrub that captures interest after its leaves drop, adding a splash of color to the garden over the winter months. The bare stems are bright red, with some species and cultivars sporting yellow or yellow-red stems. Three species are the most common: Tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba), red osier dogwood (C. sericea) and blood twig dogwood (C. sanguinea).

All are multistemmed and medium-sized (up to 8 feet tall and wide) with green or variegated foliage in summer. Red twig dogwoods grow in full sun to part shade and are not fussy about soil.

Red Twig Dogwood

These shrubs show off their stem color best in mass groupings, including border plantings. The youngest stems produce the most vibrant color, so annual pruning is recommended. Simply cut to the ground one-fourth of the stems — the oldest, thickest ones — every year in February or March to force new growth from the roots.

Red twig dogwoods respond well to “stooling,” the process of cutting all stems back to about 9 inches from the ground in early spring. Stooling can be useful if a shrub is outgrowing its allotted space or looking tired. Red twig dogwood branches can be safely cut in the winter for use in holiday arrangements.

Deer may browse the colorful stems in winter, but usually do no severe damage. Most cultivars are fairly disease and pest-free, but can be susceptible to leaf spot and dogwood sawfly. Occasional watering during hot, dry summer conditions can help prevent leaf spot. Sawfly larvae may cause unsightly damage to the leaves, but usually they will not harm the shrub.

Sensitive fern
By Barbara Murphy

Sensitive fern is a native perennial that earned its common name because its green fronds die quickly when nipped by the first frost. But its seed heads linger through the winter.

Onoclea sensibilis produces two distinct types of fronds. Its sterile vegetative fronds are 2 to 3 feet long, triangular and composed of regular alternating leaflets with wavy margins. Though beautiful in the summer and fall, they shrivel with the frost.

The shorter fertile fronds appear in late summer, turn dark brown and remain upright throughout the winter months. The dark fronds covered with delicate bead-like spore cases are striking against a snow-covered background. They are also popular in dried floral arrangements.

Easily grown in partial to full shade and moist, loose soil, sensitive fern is not fussy about soil types. It spreads by creeping underground rhizomes as well as spores. It is a great native groundcover in shaded areas and may spread rapidly, especially in damp areas, so choose a spot where it has room to roam. This fern is deer-resistant and has no serious insect or disease problems, but it is sensitive to drought.


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