Natural Beauty For Winter

by Cindy Gilberg

As leaves and temperatures drop in autumn, gardens take on a new look. Many gardens are designed for warmer seasons with flowers, foliage and fruit in mind. Yet the essence of a great garden is one with year-round structure and interest, especially in the fourth and often overlooked winter season. Native plants with winter interest in the form of intriguing branching structure, colorful berries and attractive seedheads are also essential for a healthy habitat garden. Visual interest includes not only plants, stone and garden structure but also the color and animation of our winter bird population. Look out your window. What do you see? Perhaps a better question would be: What don’t you see? Consider where there are missed opportunities for adding plants and structure that offer opportunities to see the beauty of winter.

Many native plants add both winter interest and winter bird habitat. Consider, for example, plants that offer ripe fruit at this time of year. Perhaps the best known are the hollies: evergreen American holly (Ilex opaca), winterberry (I. verticillata) and deciduous holly (I. decidua). In late fall brilliant red berries ripen along their branches. Note that only female holly plants bear fruit so it is necessary to plant one male plant in close proximity to ensure fruit production. Hawthorns are small to medium trees with bright red berries that also ripen in fall. There are about fifty naturally occurring species in Missouri, one of which is our state flower. One in particular is green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis) that has attractive white flowers followed by bright red fruit but also beautiful mottled cinnamon, grey and olive green bark, a plus for winter interest. Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), aptly named for its uniquely colored amethyst berries, is a 4-5 ft. shrub with fruit that lasts through December. Our native Viburnums are large shrubs with white flower clusters followed by dark blue fruit in late fall into winter.

Evergreen plants are always desirable for winter gardens. In addition to American holly, Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and giant cane (Arundinaria gigantea) provide solid cover for birds in winter. Giant cane, a native bamboo, spreads quickly by underground runners. A few woodland sedges offer green foliage in winter, specifically oak sedge (Carex albicans) and cedar sedge (C. eburnea). Another woodland plant, Christmas fern (Polystichum arcostichoides), can be seen through the end of January. Even some of the native alum root (Heuchera spp.) have ground-hugging foliage that remains green in all but the coldest of winters.

Later in winter, around February, the fragrant yellow flowers of witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) open and tease us with the anticipation of spring. This small tree is an important early source of pollen for insects that brave warm winter days to forage.

Don’t be so quick to deadhead and clean up the garden in late fall. Seed heads and dead foliage of native grasses and perennials are critical habitat for birds, overwintering insects (butterflies!) and small mammals, offering food and shelter. The colors of these dormant plants, tones of tan, orange, gray and brown, soften the winter garden.

Winter allows gardeners the opportunity to sit back, appreciate what the winter garden offers and to reflect not only on the past year in the garden but also to anticipate what might make the garden even better next year. Relax now, peruse garden catalogs and by spring you will no doubt have a list of new plants and ideas for the new year.

This column is written in collaboration with Shaw Nature Reserve (Missouri Botanical Garden) in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Visit the Whitmire Wildflower Garden (at Shaw Nature Reserve), a 5-acre display garden, for ideas on native plant landscaping. Native plant conservation and the promotion of native plants in our landscapes is vital to restoring the rich biodiversity of our region.