Winter doesn't have to be a colorless season
The winter landscape can be extraordinary if your garden is designed for winter interest. Consider plants that flower, offer berries, hold their foliage, have showy bark or display attention-grabbing shapes even without leaves. If you haven't planted with an eye toward winter interest, your beds will remain bare for another nine to 10 weeks.
For example, flying dragon hardy orange (Poncirus trifoliata "Flying Dragon") can provide a classical or contemporary sculptural element when it loses its leaves in winter. Contorted filbert, also known as Harry Lauder's walkingstick, is an ordinary woody plant that doesn't exhibit any special qualities until its foliage has fallen. Then the curlicue-shaped, contorted branches become visible, making the plant extremely interesting. Harry Lauder's catkins elongate in late winter, and the twisted twigs are adorned with miniature tail-like male flowers.
Here are some other plants that will display winter interest in your garden:
Witch hazels flower in February, depending on the type. Vernal varieties (Hamamellis vernalis) grow to about eight to 12 feet, some with red flowers. Many have fragrant flowers and are shade tolerant. Chinese selections (H. mollis) grow to about 10 to 15 feet in height. Both vernal and Chinese varieties have magnificent fall leaf colors with flowers ranging from yellow to russet red blooming in January and February. One hybrid, Arnold promise, has larger fragrant flowers than other species that open in late winter.
Winter-flowering jasmine has forsythia-like yellow flowers opening in January and continuing into March. Flowers open, a few at a time, during warm spells. An interesting characteristic of this plant is its square stems that remain green year-round. Their arching habit makes them a natural for sunny slopes or as cascades over wall edges. Keep in mind that shoots will start to grow when they touch soil, so if you don't want the plant to spread, keep its branches trimmed.
Hellebores are evergreen perennials that flower in winter, growing to 12 to 18 inches tall. A great deal of hybridizing has been done with Oriental varieties to increase flower size and color variation. Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) is of European origin. Both have large, evergreen leaves. They will bloom and sometimes maintain flowers from February to April. The greenish-white Christmas rose and purplish-maroon flowering Oriental hellebores are stunning during late winter snowfalls.
Bergenia is a perennial that gets noticed in winter because of its colorful leaves. Its cabbage-textured foliage turns orange-red when temperatures drop, and, barring bitter cold, it will usually hold that color until new growth begins in spring. It is shade tolerant and likes moist conditions.
Some of the finest winter flowers appear on late-winter blooming bulbs during February and March. They require sun to look their best but do well in woodland gardens because deciduous shade trees have not leafed out until after the bulbs have bloomed and seasoned for the following year. Some of my favorites are blue and white glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa) and yellow winter aconites (Eranthis). They must be planted in fall. They look best in areas where their dainty flowers can be appreciated.
Winter interest can also be achieved using woody plants with bark that displays ornamental characteristics.
Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has a cinnamon-red, peeling bark, making it an outstanding, slow-growing winter specimen tree. The added bonus is that it's a clean, disease- and insect-resistant small maple reaching about 20 to 25 feet in height. It prefers a protected location in part sun and is a very desirable choice for winter gardens.
Coralbark Japanese maple (A. palmatum "Sango Kaku") turns brilliant red in winter. The younger stems display a more brilliant hue than older wood. This 25- to 30-foot tree is eye-catching.
Kousa dogwoods have lacy bark during winter in shades of browns, light tans and almost white. It is shade tolerant, extremely disease resistant and, growing to only 20 to 30 feet, a small tree that will fit most landscape designs.