Plants with Winter Interest

Winter, the other season, is upon us and I have no plans to stop gardening; winter interest is part of the program around here. During the last seven years we have added evergreen trees and shrubs, winter-flowering plants, plants with interesting bark color, and plants with berries to jazz it up and make being in the garden in February a pleasure. While some of these plants might not dazzle in July, they more than reward us by shining in our darker months.

Azara microphylla, an evergreen small tree or large shrub, is about 10 feet tall in my garden and about five years old. Its sweet, round leaves reflect light year round and sparkle, but the yellow very fragrant flowers in January or February smell like brownies and that's always a good thing.

Another evergreen shrub, this one for shade, Sarcococca confusa is a small, slow growing plant tolerant of dry soil. It also has intensely fragrant flowers in winter followed by dark blue berries. Fragrance in the winter garden is incredibly rewarding.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena' is also fragrant, although to me it is a very light scent. The January flowers bring so much joy and they remind me that if I look hard enough there are pleasures to be had in the dead of winter.

Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata' is another evergreen fragrant shrub. Very sweetly scented, it is a prized shrub for many gardeners.

Daphne × transatlantica 'Blafra' ETERNAL FRAGRANCE is another evergreen shrub. It happens to be very forgiving and blooms not just in winter but a little bit year round.

Moving away from fragrant evergreen shrubs, this little bulb Ipheon uniflorum is a spreader, but this clump has been here for several years with little spread, likely because it is contained by creeping thyme. It is one of the first flowers to bloom in late winter and is completely dormant by summer.

There are winter-flowering clematis, this is C. cirrhosa 'Wisley Cream'. It does go semi-dormant in summer and truth be told, it looks terrible right now and is a little behind schedule - this photo is from last year. Still, it is a welcome sight in December to see a clematis blooming.

If you can grow grevilleas, they are worth the space they occupy. This is Grevillea 'Neil Bell', an evergreen shrub that is, at about five years old, 8' tall. It blooms in winter much to the joy of our local hummingbirds and also blooms sporadically year-round. Little care and average to poor soil, it's a great shrub for full sun.

Erica carnea 'Rosalie' is so cheerful in February, a flush of deep pink in a sea of green, gray and brown. That they are evergreen shrublets is a bonus, a quick shearing of old blossoms later in the season gives them a quick cleanup, however I am lazy and just leave them be. 

Great vibrant color. There are so many heaths and heathers from which to choose and they add so much sparkle on a gray February day, it is very worth adding them if you have the space.

Of course, I admire and am so appreciative of coniferous trees, especially in winter. To represent all of them, this is Cupressus bakeri, a beauty of a tree. An older photo, it is now about 15' tall and definitely a favorite for its blue-ish foliage.

Many dogwoods have interesting winter bark, case in point Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' after it drops its yellow autumn foliage gives this show until new leaves grow in spring. Our native redtwig dogwood, Cornus sericea, is also gorgeous with bright red bark and a spreading, suckering habit.

Hellebores in general have year-round appeal, but I am especially fond of this foliage, Helleborus foetidus. Its odd green flowers in spring add to its charm for me. It is low maintenance and low water in my shade garden.

Hips of Rosa glauca hang on though winter. I often spy little songbirds on and around this plant, pecking at fruits that have fallen on the ground.

Here they are dressed for the season.

Persimmons! Who knew? Once the foliage drops the fruit remains until early winter when I harvest them. For now they look like decorations in the orchard.

This is Diospyros kaki 'Saijo', an astringent type persimmon that is, when properly ripened, excellent eating.

Berries of our native Viburnum trilobum often persist through winter.

Common snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus, ubiquitous in our native woodlands, has much winter interest in the form of its white berries. Wildlife will eventually munch on these though I am told that they are not the most delicious berries so are often the last choice of the season. They show up well in the landscape and are very pretty to look at. I just wish they didn't spread as quickly as they do. An interesting observation is that hummingbirds covet the teeny pinkish spring flowers.

Phlomis russelliana has year-round interest. Here, long after the flowers have faded and the flower stalks have lost their leaves, brown pom poms (seeds) persist through winter with evergreen basal foliage.

Even in snow they hold up beautifully.

As do the dried flower stalks of Hylotelephium 'Matrona' right. On the left is another evergreen shrub that is lovely year round, Brachyglottis greyi. Its silver foliage stands out against more typical browns of winter.

Detail of Brachyglottis greyi foliage. This shrub has been extremely drought adapted in my garden with rough, intensely hot and dry summers and no water.

In late winter salix shrubs begin blooming. This is Salix gracilistyla 'Melanostachys' - black pussywillow. Granted, this particular shrub died in my garden this year - still, if it's happy it's an interesting thing to look at in winter. I notice wildlife seems to be really attracted to salix.

More late-winter blooming shrubs include our native ribes species - this is Ribes sanguineum 'White Icicle', white flowering currant. To be truthful, they sometimes begin blooming in April, so not officially winter but sometimes they do hit the late winter mark.  

Ribes sanguineum, our native flowering currant blooming in late winter. These are wonderful understory shrubs and are well visited by hummingbirds.

Many saxifrages are evergreen and while they kind of shrink in size they are still charming details in the winter garden.

Sedum spathulifolium 'Purpureum', a native sedum, takes on rich purple tones in cold weather. Many of our native sedums are evergreen and are, therefore, in my book, interesting in winter. They include Sedum oreganum, S. spathulifolium 'Cape Blanco', S. divergens, S. oregonense among others.

Sedum spathulifolium 'Cape Blanco' foreground, Sedum divergens the green sedum behind it in a container near the front door.

While this is really late autumn, the form of this weeping salix (unknown species/cultivar), is charming in winter without its foliage. Its surrounding cast of Miscanthus s. 'Cabaret' on the right will remain standing until early spring when we cut them back, while the Carex comans at its feet are evergreen and add texture year round. Incidentally, birds love hanging out in this tree and the grasses that surround it throughout autumn and winter. Chickadees especially love the large grasses.

Callicarpa, beautyberry, does have some of the prettiest berries. This is pictured in autumn, however after the leaves drop the berries persist and add color through winter. This is Callicarpa 'Early Amethyst'.

Bright bark of coral bark maple, Acer j. 'Sango Kaku'.

When thinking of winter interest, annual wildflowers are usually not included. I argue that since they germinate in autumn and persist until they eventually bloom in spring, these Limnanthes douglasii, Douglas' meadowfoam, add a freshness that is otherwise hard to come by in winter.

Let us not forget details that occur without input from the gardener. 

Arbutus unedo 'Compacta', an evergreen shrub/small tree that should have orange/red fruits (mine is probably not old enough yet) does attract a lot of hummingbird activity with its winter flowers. 

The manzanitas or Arctostaphylos sp. are fantastic for year-round interest, but in winter when many bloom, they add so much charm and needed sustenance for birds and insects. Pictured is Arctostaphylos 'Saint Helena'.

Arctostaphylos 'Austin Griffiths' getting ready to bloom in January.

Bumble bee visiting Arctostaphylos pumila on a cold winter day in the garden. A reminder that wildlife is here year-round, not just in the warm season. I hope that my year-round garden can provide for them. I do love that in the middle of winter we can walk out our front door and experience birdsong, insects and small mammals partaking in the garden along side us.

In the beginning of this post I said with a bit of cheek that winter is the other season, meaning there are now two - summer and winter. That is to say our shoulder seasons of spring and autumn seem to be diminishing as extreme weather is the norm these days. That said, all of the plants listed here have endured in all weather here in my humble northwest Oregon garden. Hopefully, you are all able to enjoy a little wintertime nature wherever you are.

There are many other plants that have interesting attributes in the cold season that are not pictured here. These are merely a few that caught my eye as I was putting this post together. Please feel free to chime in and add some of your favorites in the comments.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing from you and your gardens. Also, if there are any particular subjects you think deserve a discussion and blog post, please mention it in the comments. Happy gardening!


  1. Your winter garden will surely be as beautiful as your summer garden, Tamara. SoCal has long-claimed to have just 2 seasons, a cool one and a warm (often hot) one. We're more green than brown or gray during the winter months but Grevilleas (like 'Scarlet Sprite' and 'Penola') and trees like Arbutus 'Marina' do a yeoman's job of providing added color during what passes for winter here. And our bulb foliage, Narcissus, Scilla peruviana, Ipheion and Dutch Iris, is already pushing up. Now, if we can only get some rain to encourage their progress...

    1. I think we're going the way of SoCal in the two seasons method. Great list of plants to keep it interesting for you, Kris - hopefully you got some rain this weekend? My friends in San Francisco did!

  2. Anonymous1:06 PM PST

    I am actually quite a fan of winter gardens: there's not much to do but just enjoy. Berries and small flowers are subtle which seems appropriate during the winter. Love the smell of Sarcoccoca. How nice to be able to stroll through with that lovely fragrance in the air. Winter interest here consists of tall grasses and seed heads and lots of conifers. Very few plants are evergreen but Veronica whitleyii, Sedium 'Angelina' and lots of Semps make snowless periods interesting.

    1. Yay for winter gardens, Elaine! Conifers, tall all sounds lovely.

  3. Forget to put my name in again. Sigh!

    1. No worries ;) We love knowing who you are, though!

  4. You've done a wonderful job of including winter interest in your garden. So much to enjoy when it's cold outside.

    1. Thank you Jeanette! We appreciate the kind words!

  5. Anonymous4:30 PM PST

    I have no plans to stop gardening either! As long as it doesn't actively raining or snowing, I'll gladly be out there. A good winter garden is the best, almost better then a spring garden (though most will disagree :-D).
    My little Azara will experience its second winter and I'm excited to see it in bloom. I planted low growing Sarcococca humilis last spring and looking forward to the vanilla scent to waft through the garden soon. There are many other plants (Acer 'Sango Kaku,'hellebore, heath, heather...) that we both grow: I can't imagine my garden without them. Now, if only I could keep Daphne odora marginata alive...

    1. Hi Chavli, I'm with on through thick and thin. I am surprised daphne doesn't do well for you - maybe you got a dud plant?

  6. That Cupressus bakery is stunning. Much more attractive than Colorado Blue Spruce which I see everywhere. And it's hardy in Z5 (southern WI). Thanks for alerting me to a wonderful looking new plant. So many of the ones I lust after in your garden won't grow here, so it is always a thrill to discover something new that might be hardy here.

    1. Oh, Linda, if you find one it's SO pretty. The photo doesn't do it justice. So glad you found something that will be hardy for you! Cheers.

  7. We've mainly got chestnut backed chickadees at our house. Very shy and reclusive. I can hear them squeaking away up high in the Dougfirs. I've never been able to entice them down to the feeders where I can see them better. Our main bird visitors to the feeder are Steller's jays, juncos, and towhees. Love the heaths. Wish they did a little better for us, but we just don't have the right conditions for them to thrive in our yard - too dry and our water is pH 10. But, we have a lot of the other beauties you highlight here. The Brachyglottis is one of my favorites.

    1. We love the chestnut backed chickadees! Very cute. I'm surprised they are not visiting your feeders. We have about equal amounts of both chestnuts and black capped and they are regulars for the black oil sunflower seeds. Love all the birds, actually.

      Wow, pH 10? That's amazing! but you can grow some outstanding plants in such alkaline soil. Why is that, I wonder? Is there some geological anomaly in your area? I'd love to find out!

    2. Anonymous11:14 AM PST

      Our soil is much more moderate, closer to pH 6.5. It's just our well water that is so high. Probably dug down deep into some reservoir that's surrounded by highly alkaline rock. I think we tested our creek water too and that is much more moderate, though I forget the exact value. We'd have better luck, I'm sure, if we used water from the creek, but we don't have the water rights so it stays where the little fish can use it.

    3. Ah, that explains it! So interesting. Yes, you would want to leave the water for the fishies, for sure ;)


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