Shrubs for the Winter Landscape

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

As we look to nature as our guide to winter landscaping and plant choice, the understory of the forest and edges become a great interest. The understory in our landscapes becomes the shrubs. In a winter garden, the success of this layer comes in the fruits, bark and texture of the twigs of our shrubs we may select.

Some interesting shrubs that demand our attention in the winter landscape include shrubs like the red-twig and yellow-twig dogwoods, chokeberries, winterberry hollies and oakleaf hydrangeas. The dogwoods, Cornus alba, Cornus stolonifera, and Cornus sericea, are all species of the red twig dogwood. These shrubs are not known for their flowers but for their winter color in the twigs. As their name suggests, the stems are a brilliant red or yellow, giving color in our winter gardens. Many varieties of these plants are available. Typically this group of plants can grow to 10’, but some varieties have been selected to remain shorter, closer to the four foot range, to fit better into the average landscape. Ask your nurseryman for varieties that are shorter. This plant will adapt well to most soils, but naturally will grow in wet locations. This plant group will need to be pruned regularly as the colored twigs are the newest growth. The old wood becomes brown. Just cut out the old wood in the spring before the plant comes out into leaf, and your plants will keep their bright twig color.

Chokeberries are among my favorite winter and summer shrubs. The berries on these plants often remain until late winter. It seems to be one of the last shrubs hit by the birds. The most common chokeberry is the red chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia. This one will reach about 6’-8’ at maturity and works great in a shrub border or even in a foundation planting, if you pay particular attention to the location so it doesn’t get too tall. It likes full sun to part shade, and does will in most soils. Again, this one naturally is found in low areas, but adapts well to dryer locations. The industry recognizes this native shrub as a plant that offers many benefits from the structure and shape, to the fall color and fruit. Because of this, many selections of this plant have been made. For instance, "Brilliantissima" is a selected variety for its wonderful bright red fall color, and "Erect" has been selected for its upright habit.

Another chokeberry often missed is our native Aronia malanocarpa. This is the black chokeberry, and unlike the red chokeberry, gets large black fruits that remain on the plant throughout the winter. Offering interesting berries, this is a great selection for the winter landscape. The black chokeberry also has a red fall color and white flowers in the spring. This Aronia is slightly slower growing than the red Aronia, and typically does not get as tall, reaching about four feet. Both the red and black chokeberries adapt well to many soils, but favors acid soils.

The winterberry holly holds its berries through January and these berries are bright red along the stems of the plant. Another versatile native shrub, this adapts well to most soils, except very dry conditions. However, the berries come with a hitch. As the case with all hollies, this plant requires a male and a female. The female will be heavy laden with fruit, and the males are the plant that makes that happen. So, one will not happen without the other. When purchasing your winterberry holly, ask your nurseryman for a compatible pair so you are sure to get berries. Place this shrub in full sun to part shade, and as with all newly planted shrubs, be sure to water well its first season.

Oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, is a lovely large growing native shrub. This interest in this plant for the winter lies in the bark, much like the paperbark maple. The stems peel, showing a pretty cinnamon color and texture throughout the winter months. This plant likes more shade than sun, but I have seen it grow just fine in full sun if given enough water. These plants have large white panicles of flowers in the summer, and have a lovely red fall color, making this a great choice for any season. As its name suggests, the leaves are shaped like an oak leaf, giving a course texture to your garden. This plant can be successfully used as a specimen plant or in a shrub grouping. Oakleaf hydrangeas will reach 6’ – 8’. Since this is a very large shrub, be sure you place this at the right location so you do not have to prune to reduce or maintain the size. It looks best in its natural form.

There is a smaller growing selection called "Pee Wee" oakleaf hydrangea. This pretty shrub has all the characteristics of the straight species, but will maintain a size of 3’-4’, making this an exciting shrub for foundation plantings for all season interest.

Selection of plants is an exciting project. Knowing the time of year you want to focus on, looking at nature as your guide, and researching plants can be a great winter project. Enjoy gardening every season, and keep on gardening!

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