The season is winding down, and your plants are going dormant but there is no end to the beauty your garden can provide! Our deciduous trees are sporting brilliant fall foliage, while asters and goldenrods still abound in the field. But, with winter approaching, lets think ahead to what’s coming next! Native plants can provide four seasons of interest, with beauty to admire even in the most dreaded part of winter. Here, we will take a look at some of our favorite native plants for winter interest that we have available now!
Conifers – Trees (medium mature size)
‘Yankee Blue’ Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Yankee Blue’) – A shorter, narrower selection of the above species with exceptional, silvery-blue foliage. It prefers the same conditions as the species (see below), but will only grow 15 to 20 feet tall x 6 to 8 feet wide.
Eastern White Cedar / Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) – There are so many hybrids and cultivated varieties of arborvitae on the market, but we grow the true native species! Just like other arbs, the native species has soft, scaly foliage and an upright, columnar habit. However, if left to grow naturally, it will grow 20 to 40 feet tall x 10 to 15 feet wide with a visible trunk! They can be pruned annually to maintain a specific size. Prefers full sun and average to wet soils.
Conifers – Trees (tall mature size)
Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) – A graceful, narrow conifer native to the East Coast from southern Maine to Florida, and west along the Gulf Coast to Mississippi. This species naturally occurred in south-eastern Pennsylvania. It is now extirpated due to habitat destruction. Prefers full sun, tolerates some shade; grows in average to wet soils; grows 40 to 50 feet tall x 15 to 20 feet wide at maturity; fast grower.
Balsam Fir / Canaan Fir (Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis) – This natural variation of the balsam fir is an Appalachian strain that performs better in our more humid climate. This is a very attractive conifer, with a broad pyramidal shape and beautiful, purple-hued cones that stand upright. Prefers full sun to part shade; moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soils; grows 40 to 50 feet tall x 20 to 25 feet spread at maturity.
Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) – This massive pine has soft, blue-green foliage and long, attractive cones. White pines grow as a tall, columnar or pyramidal tree, often with branches at ground level. In nature they may have a tall, bare trunk and a canopy-like branch structure due to competition. This pine prefers full sun, but can tolerate almost full shade for many years. Will grow in dry to moist, well-drained soils and prefers slight acidity. Grows 50 to 80 feet tall x 2o to 40 feet wide; fast grower and quick to mature.
Conifers – Shrubs and Groundcovers
‘Grey Owl’ Juniper (Juniperus virginiana ‘Grey Owl’) – Though the eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) tends to grow into a tree, there are some selections that have a shrubby habit, and ‘Grey Owl’ is one of them. It was discovered as a seedling from a Juniperus virginiana ‘Glauca’ in the 1940’s. ‘Grey Owl’ is a broad, low-growing shrub with arching branches and a silvery-blue foliage and blue “berries.” Best grown in full sun, in average to moist, well-drained soils; grows 2 to 3 feet tall x 4 to 6 feet wide. Pairs very well with dwarf winterberries and red or yellow-twigged dogwoods.
‘Bar Harbor’ Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis ‘Bar Harbor’) – Yes, the familiar creeping juniper is native! It always comes to a surprise to everyone. This evergreen groundcover is very effective at controlling weeds and preventing erosion, useful for all sorts of uses in the garden and landscape. Usually this juniper is a ground-hugger, only growing 6 to 8 inches tall x 6 to 8 feet wide, allowing it to cover a nice area of ground. Fairy fast grower. Prefers full sun, tolerates dry to moist, well-drained soils and is very adaptable. ‘Bar Harbor’ is a male selection.
Broadleaf Evergreens (with showy flowers)
Mountain Dog-Hobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana) – A very unique and beautiful broad-leaved evergreen that makes a fantastic alternative to the non-native Japanese Andromeda (Pieris japonica). This plant has dark green foliage, often with a reddish-maroon hue on newly emerging leaves. In spring, numerous strings of white, bell-shaped flowers covers the shrub, extremely similar in appearance to Pieris. Dog-hobbles prefer moist, well-drained acidic soils in part shade, though will grow in full shade as well. Full sun should be avoided to prevent leaf scald. Grows 3 to 6 feet tall and wide with a mounding, arching habit.
Great Laurel (Rhododendron maximum) – Like many ornamental Rhododendrons, our native great laurel has broad, leathery, evergreen leaves. Appropriately named Rhododendron maximum for its gigantic mature size. In nature, this species may grow 30 to 40 feet tall and wide. It is quite rare for a cultivated plant to reach that size; generally garden specimens only grow 5 to 15 tall and wide. Sports numerous clusters of white or light pink blossoms in early summer. Requires moist but well-drained, acidic soil to thrive. Best in part shade.
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) – Our state flower! Mountain laurel thrives where our great laurel thrives, in moist, well-drained acidic soils. It will behave similarly to the great laurel in the garden, growing on average between 5 and 15 feet tall and wide. We currently have the straight species available, so they may have some nice natural variation between individuals. Flowers appear in late spring; bloom color is generally white with magenta or red speckles.
Broadleaf Evergreens (with showy berries)
American Holly (Ilex opaca) – The familiar holly of winter, with spiny leaves and bright red berries! Hollies are dioecious, and therefore only female plants sport the attractive berries. A male is needed for pollination. We have several named varieties of females on hand: ‘Arlene Leech‘, ‘Carnival‘, ‘Cave Hill‘, and ‘Satyr Hill‘ as well as identified males for pollination and unsexed straight species. We have more selection of American hollies than we’ve ever had, come check them out! Most grow 30 to 50 feet tall x 20 to 40 feet wide, however they can be pruned to maintain a smaller size.
Inkberry Holly (Ilex glabra) – A less “typical” looking holly, with small, rounded leaves and black berries. Similar in appearance to boxwoods (Buxus), it makes a great native alternative for it. Like other hollies, inkberry is dioecious, and so only the female plants will produce black berries. A male is still needed for pollination. We have some unsexed, straight species available now as well as a compact, female selection called ‘Compacta’. Typically, inkberry holly will grow 4 to 8 feet tall and wide, but ‘Compacta’ is shorter, growing just 3 to 4 feet tall and wide.
Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) – Out of all the native plants, the winterberry holly probably remains one of those most sought-after species for winter interest. Again, like all hollies, only the female plants will produce brilliant red berries. However, unlike the American holly and Inkberry holly mentioned before, this holly is deciduous. Currently, we have two female selections available: ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Red Sprite’. ‘Winter Red’ is a medium sized selection, growing 6 to 8 feet tall and wide on average with an exceptional berry set. We have straight species male winterberry to pollinate them. Meanwhile, ‘Red Sprite’ is a dwarf winterberry, growing only 2 to 3 feet tall and wide. We have ‘Jim Dandy’ available as well, which is the appropriate male variety to pollinate ‘Red Sprite’. They prefer full sun to part shade, average to wet, slightly acidic soils and can even tolerate flooding.
Green Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis) – The green hawthorn is a small, flowering tree that makes a wonderful street tree or specimen. In spring, it is covered in white flowers and is similar in appearance to a crabapple. Red berries ripen in fall, and often hang on the tree for the majority of winter, giving it a very attractive look. In the snow, the red berries really pop on the tree. In late winter, migrating flocks of songbirds often stop and strip the tree of any remaining fruits. On average, the green hawthorn grows 20 to 35 feet tall and wide, with a short trunk and a broad canopy. Best grown in full sun, though will tolerate partial shade. Prefers average to moist, well-drained, fertile soils.
Red and Yellow-twigged dogwoods (Cornus sericea) – These shrubby dogwoods are nothing like the flowering dogwood tree. Red and yellow-twigged dogwoods are deciduous shrubs that, when defoliated for winter, sport the most vibrant and beautiful bark around. The young wood of these dogwoods turns either bright red or bright yellow in winter depending on which variation you plant. The mass of colorful stems really pops in the snowy landscape! It is advisable to cut them down the stumps every other year in late winter to encourage a flush of new growth that will have bright colors (older wood does not become brilliantly colored). Full sun to light shade is best, and they’ll grow in almost any soil type from dry to wet, acidic to alkaline. Very easy to grow!
River Birch (Betula nigra) – The river birch is a very cool, medium-sized shade tree that has one very special ornamental attribute: its peeling bark! The rough, papery, peeling bark of the river birch is beloved by gardeners and landscapers alike. In winter, when the tree is dormant and defoliated, it still provides incredible interest with that attractive bark. River birches can be grown anywhere in the sun or partial shade with average to wet soil (prefers the most moisture it can get). Grows 40 to 70 feet tall x 30 to 60 feet spread; often a multi-trunked tree but can have a single trunk too.
Winter Bloomers? Yes, there are a few…
Spring Witch-hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) – The spring witch-hazel actually tends to bloom in late winter, usually around mid to late February or early March, and sometimes earlier if the winter is mild. Like the fall witch hazel, the spring witch hazel grows into a large, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree and has yellow, stringy flowers that smell slightly of lemon. It is really exciting to see something blooming just before spring arrives! Plant the spring witch-hazel in full sun to part shade and moist to wet soil. It tolerates more moisture than the fall witch-hazel, which prefers well-drained soils. The spring witch-hazel can even be planted in heavy clay and areas that are occasionally inundated with water. On average, it grows 6 to 12 feet tall x 8 to 12 feet wide, but can be pruned to maintain a specific size.
Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) – Perhaps one of our most unusual, yet familiar native species is the skunk cabbage. Named for its odor, released from crushed leaves and cut stems, this plant is a staple of our wooded wetlands here in the Eastern United States. While the foliage is reminiscent of a big green Hosta, the flowers are the most remarkable part of this plant. The flowers emerge in the late winter, usually around early February. The flowers are hard to describe, so check out the image below! Because of the heat this plant generates, holes form in the snow where blooms lie underneath so pollinators can access them…yes, it melts snow, it is that cool! Best grown in a wet, shaded area with heavy, compacted soils. Sorry, but we do not have any skunk cabbage available right now (October 2021) – check back spring 2022!
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) – This evergreen fern is of interest all year round, as even in the coldest part of winter its fronds are still lush. Excellent choice for shade gardens; tolerates dry to moist, well-drained soils and prefers slight to moderate acidity (though will grow almost anywhere). Tolerates almost full sun, though partial shade is best, and full shade is just as good. Looks fantastic planted en mass for the best visual display, perfect plant for growing with spring ephemerals!
American Alumroot (Heuchera americana) – Though the foliage of the American alumroot is generally a soft, mint green with white or red variegation, the colors become a little wild in the winter! Hues of maroon, red, orange, violet, and pink may cast over the foliage of this plant for the winter. Will grow in sun to shade, dry to moist, well drained soils but prefers partial shade and more average soils (but will not tolerate too much moisture!)
Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) – This little sprawling plant is less than an inch tall, and creeps along the ground, spreading up to a few feet in any direction. It can be tricky to grow, as it really needs loose, exceptionally-drained (but consistently moist), acidic, sandy soils and will not tolerate excessive sunlight, heat, or moisture. Best in full shade to dappled sun. Best planted under conifers because large leaves of deciduous trees can fall on this plant and smother it.
Warm Season Grasses – There are lots of species of warm season grasses, which by winter are long dormant, leaving behind tawny-colored stems. These dormant grasses make for fantastic architectural interest in the winter, poking up through the snow. One of our favorites for its “winter appeal” is broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus) because the 2 to 4 foot tall, narrow, tawny tufts look so cool in the barren winter landscape, especially in the snow! Most prefer full sun, average to moist, well-drained, fertile soils (some exceptions exist).
While I hope you have been inspired by this post, please be aware that these are just some of the many native plants with winter interest. Almost any plant can have some winter appeal, including the dormant, withered stems of flowering perennials such as coneflowers (Echinacea) or black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia). Blackened seed heads of such plants poke up above the snow and are welcoming to foraging songbirds. Many other plants such as chokeberries (Aronia) and bayberries (Myrica) also hold their berries through the winter. Other plants, aside from river birches, such as ninebarks (Physocarpos) and oak-leaved hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) have attractive, peeling bark. Many sedges (Carex) make wonderful evergreen groundcovers, as does barren strawberry (Geum fragaroides) So many choices, so little time to keep writing them about them! I hope you have enjoyed this post and that you’ll be thinking about your winter aesthetic this year!
Citations for featured image photos (left to right):
‘Grey Owl’ Juniper (photo: Brandon Everett)