Unless you live in the actual tundra, it’s highly unlikely that your garden will be completely covered with snow throughout the winter months. During that time, most gardens are remarkably gray.
I’m all for subtle colors, especially in winter. But sometimes, you just need a jolt of something interesting to look at out the window. It’s easy to find shrubs with good winter foliage. Gardeners with wet winters get broadleaved evergreens, while those with dry winters content themselves with conifers. But at ground level, things are a little trickier.
Most perennials protect themselves from cold by letting their top growth die off and protect the dormant buds resting below ground level. Evergreen perennials, however, retain their leaves throughout the winter. Many of them are indigenous to deciduous forests. These evergreen perennials continue to photosynthesize through the winter, when the leaves have fallen from the tree canopy above and light actually reaches the forest floor.
Some of the most reliable evergreen perennials for gardeners in cold climates are found in the genus Bergenia. While uncommon in American gardens, bergenias are widely grown in European gardens, especially in Germany. Bergenia cultivar names reflect this history: ‘Alpenglut’, ‘Eroica’, ‘Wintergut’.
As might be expected from plants with such Prussian names, these are hardy, coarse perennials with large round leaves that squeak if rubbed together. The leaves are bright olive green that ripens, depending on the cultivar, to rich shades of magenta and purple in cold weather. Plant them where low winter sunlight will illuminate the leaves, making them glow with vibrant color.
In addition to their colorful winter foliage, bergenias flower in late spring, usually in shades of pink. They are easy to grow, tolerating drought and neglect once established. They grow best in moist, but well-drained soil, with some protection from afternoon sun in the heat of summer. Most cultivars are 18 to 24 inches wide at maturity, with foliage 6 to 12 inches high and flowers reaching 18 inches.
From a group of plants with incredibly bold, coarse foliage, we move to a genus of great refinement and subtlety. All of the epimediums are incredibly useful for people with shady gardens. They tolerate drought and slowly increase to form thick mats that even the most tenacious weeds cannot penetrate.
Epimedium 'Black Sea'
While many epimediums are attractive throughout the year, ‘Black Sea’ is a selection with especially fine winter foliage. After a few hard frosts, its foliage transforms from soft summer green to burnished dark plum with bronze veins. It sits, throughout the winter, glowing in its regal colors, until spring comes and a new set of foliage and flowers emerges. It is best to shear it back to the ground in early February to clear off the old leaves before the new ones emerge. (Shearing the old leaves off before the new ones emerge means that you can get rid of them all in one go, rather than having to go through and snip out all the old leaves with scissors.)
The flowers open from dark buds, bursting forth in tiny pale yellow stars with egg-yolk-like central cups. The new stems are dark, and the fresh leaves have a plum blush, giving a fantastic background for the light flowers. Its bloom season is short, only a week or two in early spring. However, its tidy appearance and easy-going nature make it worth a place in any woodland.
Epimedium ‘Black Sea’, like the rest of its genus, grows well in full or partial shade. It thrives in moist, well-drained soil but can tolerate drought. It’s great for layering under deciduous shrubs, trees and even larger perennials. ‘Black Sea’ makes a thick mat of foliage 18 to 24 inches across, but its foliage is only 6 to 10 inches tall. When in bloom, the flowers float another 6 inches above the foliage.
The hardy gingers, found in the genus Asarum, are another group of lovely little plants that look fantastic throughout the winter. While many of the most desirable evergreen gingers are not hardy in the central United States, the Chinese wild ginger (Asarum splendens) has exquisite foliage and is cold tolerant down to minus 20 F. It has large (3 to 4 inch) arrowhead-shaped leaves with silver blotches on a dark green leaf. The cultivar ‘Quicksilver’ has been selected for faster growth and larger foliage (supposedly up to 7 inches long).
Chinese wild ginger needs shade in the afternoon and can tolerate very low light levels. It likes moderate soils, but does not tolerate total damp. In drought or extreme cold, the foliage will curl up and lay limp on the ground. It clumps up slowly, reaching only 12 inches wide and 6 inches high after several years. While it changes very little throughout the year, this ginger always looks tidy and respectable.
No gardener in the Midwest expects their garden to be as lively in winter as it is in summer. However, adding evergreen perennials to your garden will ensure that there’s always something interesting going on. The bright red of bergenias, the deep shiny purple of epimedium ‘Black Sea’, and the mottled greens of Chinese wild ginger will keep your garden’s color palette from relapsing into gray, no matter how many shades you’ve got.
Photos courtesy of Caleb Melchior
Caleb Melchior is a freelance writer and graduate landscape architecture student.