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Winter Wakeups
by Leslie Hunter - posted 02/01/18

‘Jelena’s fragrant flowers fill the winter garden. • Flowers bloom on red twig dogwoods in early summer • Northern bayberry drops its leaves in winter to reveal it’s bluish-gray fruit.


Right now we are in the thick of it. Cold, dark and dreary days of winter are surrounding us with a blanket of plain white, brown, and gray. Depressing to a gardener that longs for shimmers of green and color, any color will do.

Typically we go to the catalogs, books, and internet to find treasures for the coming spring, but there are gems to be found in the winter garden if you plan for it. There are many shrubs, deciduous and evergreen, that fill corners of gardens throughout the year bringing yearlong interest. Here are three shrubs that keep working even when the world goes blah.
 

The flowers of ‘Arnold Promise’ perfume the winter landscape. • The foliage of ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel turns red in fall. • ‘Jelena’ and other witch hazels offer beautiful fall color.
 

Witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia)
A cross between Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) and Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis), these hybrids are like rock stars of the winter landscape, emerging with shaggy, fragrant, and vibrant axillary clusters of blooms in the doldrums of February into March.

Medium to large shrubs, hybrid witch hazels are often upright-spreading and loosely branched. They can be pruned in the spring after flowering to retain shape. Ranging from 15-20 feet tall, they make a statement in the shrub border all year long. Like most witch hazels, they prefer well-drained, moist, acidic soil but what they get is usually less than perfect clay type soils, which they tolerate just fine. Full sun is best for flowering, but they will also grow in part shade. Make sure to provide supplemental watering in times of drought to prevent leaf scorch.


‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel’s fragrant flowers bloom mid- to late winter.
 

Witch hazels, in general, are known for their four-season appeal. Lovely gray-green foliage in summer is followed by bright yellow-to-red fall colors that drop revealing smooth, gray bark. H. x intermedia cultivars, such as ‘Arnold Promise’ and ‘Jelena’, burst onto the stage in February with much needed cheery yellow-to-deep orange sweetly scented bands of crazy haired flowers that stretch in the sun’s warmth. On cold days the strappy petals will curl in to preserve themselves from freeze damage, thus extending the bloom time.

Plant H. x intermedia near a walkway so you can enjoy not only the cheery colors but also the sweet fragrance of this gray day buster.


The stems of native red twig dogwoods glow in the winter landscape.
 

Red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea)
Red twig dogwood has a good descriptive name, but it does not do the plant justice. It is more than just “red twigs.” This shrub offers four-season appeal with white flowers in spring, interesting summer foliage, white berries late summer, and beautiful fall colors, but winter is when it really turns heads with its electric red haze.

A native to North America, red twig, or red osier as it is also called, is a medium-sized, loosely branching stoloniferous shrub often found in wetlands and along roadsides and banksides for erosion control. Reaching 6-9 feet tall if left unpruned, this fast growing shrub can make a dramatic statement in the winter scape. Many cultivars introduced, such as ‘Isanti’, are more compact, but all benefit from pruning a third of the branches down to the ground every year or two to maintain the fiery colored stems that appear with new growth.

If you plan on only growing for the winter stems, this shrub can be coppiced (cutting down all branches to the ground) every year or two, but this will sacrifice any flowering or fruiting, which benefit wildlife.

Red twig dogwood should be placed in an area of the garden that can be seen from the warmth of your house, but also an area where it can spread out its feet a little. Against a south facing garage wall will definitely show off its beauty. Full sun to part shade is preferable and it is another shrub that likes moist conditions but is tolerant of most soil conditions.
 

The fruit of northern bayberry almost glistens in the winter landscape.

Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica)
Northern bayberry is a native shrub you may be not be familiar with, but it is worth getting to know, especially for winter interest.

A deciduous medium-sized shrub up to 9 feet tall and wide, bayberry makes an excellent hedge. Don’t plant as a lone specimen, for it needs both male and female plants to produce the attractive grayish-white berries that cover the bare stems.

Gray-green, leathery, oblong aromatic leaves cover this shrub throughout the growing season, creating a handsome screen. Flowers are insignificant in the early summer but once the leaves drop in the fall, the beautiful berries can be seen encasing the branches. The berries are covered in a wax used to make bayberry candles and soaps.

Tolerant of poor growing conditions, such as wet soils, drought, and even salt from roads makes this a versatile shrub in any garden, but added winter interest makes this a real winner. Plant in sun or part shade, once established this shrub is very low maintenance.

Bayberry almost glistens in the winter landscape with the grayish white berries covering the branches like mini snowballs. These gems also bring in colorful birds to feed on the fragrant fruits creating a playful and colorful scene in an otherwise drab landscape.

There are many shrubs that bring appeal to the winter scape whether it is from interesting architecture, colorful stems, interesting fruits or even unexpected flowers. There is no need to feel so gloomy about winter; there is color to be found!

 

 

A version of this article appeared in a January/February 2018 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Leslie Hunter and monrovia.com.
 

 


Leslie Hunter is a horticulturist at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.