In areas of North America that experience seasonal changes, the winter garden can be drab and dreary, with brown grass and mud, snow that eventually becomes dingy and gray, and bare limbs on trees and shrubs — all framed by a dull sky. It's enough to make a gardener want to hibernate. Luckily, there are some ornamental plants that bring gorgeous color to the winter landscape.
Consider planting one or more of the following ornamentals on your property for amazing color during the winter season. All of them can be purchased online, at places such as Direct Gardening and White Flower Farm, or you can check with your local nursery or garden center to see if they have them or know of a local source.
Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), best suited for Zones 3 through 8, is one of nature's early blooming treasures. This unusual plant (a tree or shrub, depending on how it's grown) boasts fragrant, spider-like gold, orange, or red flowers that bloom as the leaves are turning color in autumn. It generally grows to 15 to 20 feet tall, with a similar spread, although it can reach 30 feet tall in some cases.
While common witch hazel blooms early, some cultivars don't flower until late winter. The foliage of witch hazels turns from pale yellow to deep orange in fall, and the plant requires slightly acidic soil, good drainage, and full sun to perform its best.
Red twig — or red osier — dogwood (Cornus sericea) and yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea' ) make it easy to fill the color gap in winter and early spring, even though they don't bloom. These shrubs have multiple stems with brightly colored bark, and while neither are showstoppers during bloom season, once they lose their leaves in winter, they're simply beautiful, and they benefit from regular pruning in early spring to encourage new stem growth.
Dogwoods grow well in Zones 3 through 7. Red twig dogwoods reach 6 to 9 feet tall with a spread of 7 to 10 feet, and yellow twig dogwoods grow from 5 to 6 feet tall with a similar spread.
The perennial, flowering Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), also known as “hellebore,” grows in Zones 4 through 9, and blooms in late winter to early spring. The plants can be grown in partial shade to full shade, and prefer rich, well-drained humus.
Hellebores can produce either single- or double-flowered plants, and come in a variety of colors. They grow 12 to 18 inches tall, with a similar spread. The leaves, stems, and roots are poisonous if ingested.
Although often classified as a bulb, the winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is actually a tuberous perennial. It bears bright yellow flowers in very early spring that appear to be wearing leafy green collars. On sunny days, the flowers emit a light fragrance as well.
Winter aconite is essentially a ground cover, as it only grows to about 6 inches tall. These flowers love conditions that resemble the edge of a woodland, and planting them in fertile, slightly moist soil will bring out the best in these beautiful naturalizers.
A rugged plant, the winter aconite is hardy in Zones 3 through 7, and tolerates soil that's on the chalky or alkaline side. It will even grow beneath black walnut trees.
Snow crocus (Crocus chrysanthus) are among the earliest bulbs that bloom, and they're less commonly known as species crocus. The flowers of snow crocus emerge shortly after the first good spring thaw.
The blooms are smaller than those of the more popular crocus hybrids. The waxy petals shrug off subsequent snowfalls, so it isn't unusual to see these little gems polka-dotting a blanket of snow on sunny days. Snow crocus prefer colder climates, are hardy from Zones 3 through 8, and come in several colors. They require minimal maintenance and naturalize easily.