Plants for Winter Interest

— Written By and last updated by Sarah Roberson

Your landscape does not have to be limited to shades of green, brown, and gray in the winter. It is easy make your landscape into a winter wonderland full of interesting plants with good winter characteristics. Even tree bark can provide winter interest. River birch may be one of the first we think of but there are many others. The best plant I can think of with attractive winter bark is Sango Kaku Japanese maple, also called coral bark Japanese maple, Acer palmatum. It is a green leaf Japanese maple that grows in an upright vase shape. Leaves come out in the spring with red near the margins before maturing to their summer green color. A little gold or red may be seen in the fall, but the real show starts when the leaves drop. As temperatures drop the bark becomes a bright coral color. A few of other options are paper bark maple, Acer grisseum, and Town House or Fantasy crapemyrtles, Lagerstroemia fauriei. All have attractive cinnamon colored peeling bark.

             There is no better way to brighten up a winter landscape than to have plants that bloom in the winter. Besides camellias, one of my favorites is leatherleaf mahonia, Mahonia bealei. I have heard some people call this a Chinese holly but it is not. This plant is from China but is not a holly since it has compound leaves. The leaflets are stiff with large spines. The yellow flowers are in clusters during February. Another feature that is great is fruit that look like robin eggs and mature in late spring. It grows six to eight feet tall and may reach twelve feet. Leatherleaf mahonia does best in partial shade. The leaves will bleach yellow or white in the sun. Make sure it is in a well-drained site.

            The only way to beat winter flowers is to have fragrant winter flowers. The first plant I think about is winter daphne, Daphne odora. This extremely fragrant flowering evergreen can be difficult to grow but is great for small spaces since it will only reach 3 to 4 feet high and 3 to 4 feet wide in our area. Winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragratissima, is an easier plant to grow. This large deciduous shrub is best for the middle or back of the border. In most landscapes it grows to about 8 feet high and 8 feet wide but may reach 12 to 15 feet high and 12 to 15 feet wide. Leaves look like many other honeysuckle leaves but are wider and more rounded. White flowers start in January and continue through March. Fragrance is consistent with a hint of lemon. It can fit in today’s smaller landscapes when used as a cutback shrub. Since it blooms so early on growth from last year it can be cut back close to the ground right after flowering and allowed to grow to flower the next winter. I have it growing in an island bed bordered by a sidewalk and driveway. Even if it is too cold to be out long, I can enjoy the flowers as I drive by or walk out to take the trash or recycling bin to the street.

            If you are looking for something low to the ground with winter color try lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis. It is an evergreen, late-winter or early-spring flowering member of the buttercup family. Mature plants can form clumps that are 18 to 24 inches tall and 24 to 30 inches wide. Long lasting blooms are available in many colors and appear as single or doubles. Mature plants often have 50 or more flowers per plant. This evergreen perennial performs best in part to full shade. Lenten rose is easily grown in well-drained, humus-rich and fertile garden soil. In our area Lenten rose grows best in the shade of deciduous trees. The major requirement for optimum growth is good drainage. Even in the driest of seasons, Lenten roses are tough plants that only require occasional watering after they become established. If the old leaves look a little tattered after the winter simply cut them off as the new foliage emerges in the spring.

            If you have gardening questions give the Extension Master Gardener Volunteers in Pitt County a call at 902-1705 any time or email Currently volunteers are in the office at the Pitt County Agricultural Center, 403 Government Circle, Greenville, NC 27834 on Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon to return calls, take calls, and receive visitors with questions. More gardening information can be found at including information about Paul James, the Gardener Guy who is coming to Greenville for a one time only gardening Question and Answer session on January 25th. Go to the above website under events for more information including how to purchase tickets.