Late fall, winter and spring—'tis the season for perpetual cloudy skies and rain. Although many gardens look as barren as a moonscape, we are lucky to be in the Northwest where our gardens do not have to reflect the gloomy, gray days between November and April. With a large palette of plants to choose from, we can provide colorful and visual interest for the winter garden. This season shows us a secret garden that quietly takes a back seat the rest of the year. The "bones" of the garden-the evergreen plants and hardscapes-come to the forefront. Prima donnas of spring, summer and fall fade into the background as the plants of winter brighten the darkest days.
To boost winter garden appeal, choose plants for bright-hued evergreen foliage, such as heavenly bamboos (Nandina domestica). Select plants with brilliant colored twigs, found on fiery red twig dogwoods (Cornus sericea), or white willow (Salix alba 'Flame') with stems just as flaming. In winter, the white bark of birch trees (Betula), or the peeling bark in rust and cinnamon hues on the paper bark maple (Acer griseum) come out of hiding, once the trees shed their leaves. Winter interest is found in the fascinating twisted growth of the contorted filbert, Harry Lauder's walking stick (Corylus avellana 'Contorta'), or the corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa').
Unbelievably, there are plants that produce flowers in winter in our region. My favorites are the early winter flowering camellias, Camellia sasanqua, and mahonias with their cheerful yellow blooms. Besides the sunshine hues, the mahonias provide a nectar source for the over wintering Anna hummingbirds.
The best staging for plants with winter interest is along main pathways, close to doorways and within view of windows. Here we can enjoy their winter fragrance, colorful foliage or flamboyant flowers.
Don't let the common name heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) fool you; it's not really bamboo. It's a handsome shrub with bamboo-like leaves and none of bamboo's invasive qualities. In winter, the evergreen species clothes itself in bright red foliage, topping off this excitement with brilliant red berries. N. 'Molum', best known under the trade name as Plum Passion™, is exceptional with leaves that turn plum colored. It blooms in summer and occasionally will flower again in October. Along with the species Nandina domestica and hybrid Plum Passion™, cultivars 'Sienna Sunrise' and 'Moyer's Red' all turn a radiant for the colder months. Some cultivars have yellow or white fruit. The cultivar 'Leucocarpa' carries creamy-yellow fruit, while 'Alba' adorns itself in white berries. One shrub is not enough to set fruit; it is necessary to have at least two for pollination. But without a pollinator, the flowers will dry on the shrub and add winter interest too. These will grow in part shade to full sun.
I love to pronounce the name of this next shrub--Sarcococca. It's one of those words that bounces around the mouth and quickly slips out like a giggle-sar-ko-KOAK-ah. The best part about growing sweet box (S. confusa) is that it blooms in winter; sometimes when you walk by, the fragrance gives a knock on the olfactory nerve. Who needs aromatherapy when you can deeply breathe this marvelous essence? The first time I inhaled it, I was in a woodland garden. The fragrance caught my attention, and I went in search of what was giving itself away in the middle of December. To my surprise, it was very small, almost inconspicuous white flower. The shiny, black berries hung in contrast next to the scented blossoms, on stems carrying glossy evergreen foliage. Unpruned, the shrub fits into a relaxed garden, while pruning makes it suitable for a more formal setting.
At Christmas time, false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus) is a superb alternative to grow for its festive foliage, rather than the aggressive European ornamental holly (Ilex aquifolium), much loved for Christmas decorating. The real holly, besides being a pain to prune, is a serious weed in the maritime Northwest and should NOT be introduced into our gardens. Although false holly has evergreen, glossy green, holly-like leaves, one noticeable difference is its pointed leaves are too soft to puncture the skin. The small flowers are huge on scent, bathing a large area in incredible fragrance in autumn. A favorite cultivar, Goshiki holly osmanthus (O. 'Goshiki') grows variegated leaves of pink, orange and creamy yellow on dark green and cream. Since its insignificant flowers bloom in spring, grow this slow-growing shrub for its spectacular foliage.
Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide' puts forth its flower show during the Christmas season, giving a good excuse to slow down the holiday rush and take in the wonders of our garden paradise. There is no need for red poinsettias in the window when bright red flowers with yellow stamens adorn this shrub, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Add a few white lights and you have an easy holiday decoration that would turn even Martha Stewart green with envy.
An evergreen with plenty of winter flower power is Camellia sasanqua 'Setsugekka'. One of the most popular cultivars, it is grown for its fall to mid winter flowers, especially in dreary winter when little is in bloom. From October to January, it presents a spectacular bloom with semi-double, pure white, undulated petals and golden stamens. Protect from the prevailing winds; place in morning shade to keep the winter sun from burning the flower petals.
Another attractive shrub related to our native Oregon grape, Mahonia x media 'Charity' is a knockout during dull gray days of the rainy season. This evergreen shrub tops itself with rounded spikes of fragrant yellow flowers every winter. An easy-care, disease resistant shrub, it requires minimal pruning. Place it close enough to enjoy its fragrance in winter, but site it away from walkways so the holly-like prickly leaves do no harm. If it's planted close to a window, you may spot the Anna hummingbirds visiting.
More winter interest plants found in the Plant Gallery:
- Chimonanthus praecox var. luteus WINTERSWEET
- Cornus alba 'Elegantissima' VARIEGATED REDTWIG DOGWOOD
- Erysimum linifolium 'Variegatum' WALLFLOWER
- Galanthus elwesii SNOWDROPS
- Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise' WITCH HAZEL
- Iris reticulata RETICULATA IRIS
- Jasminum nudiflorum WINTER JASMINE
- Viburnum bodnantense 'Charles Lamont'
- Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn'
- Abies concolor 'Sherwood' BLUE FIR
- Calluna vulgaris 'Robert Chapman' SCOTCH HEATHER
- Cedrus deodara 'Snow Sprite' SNOW SPRITE DEODAR CEDAR
- Erica cinerea 'Golden Sport' HEATHER
- Fatshedera lizei 'Aurea Maculata' ARALIA IVY
- Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star' BLUE STAR JUNIPER
- Phormium tenax NEW ZEALAND FLAX
- Saxifraga x urbium 'Variegata' LONDON PRIDE SAXIFRAGES
- Gaultheria mucronata PRICKLY HEATH
- Skimmia japonica JAPANESE SKIMMIA
- Viburnum trilobum HIGH BUSH CRANBERRY
Photographs by author.
Camellia sasanqua 'Setsugekka' photographed in Lisa Albert's Tualitin, Oregon garden. All other images photographed in author's garden.