Exciting Plants for the Dead of Winter

January strolls in the garden can be frigid, demoralizing experiences. Here are 3 vividly colored plants that look great year round and can warm the soul during c-c-c-cold, wintery months.

Red Twig and Yellow Twig Dogwood Shrubs (Cornus spp.)

Spotlight. Red and Yellow Twig Dogwoods make their most dramatic performance when leaves have dropped. The new stems of these shrubs scintillate in the winter landscape.

Why you should plant it. In spring, the new growth of dogwood shrubs provides excellent havens for small birds making their northern journey. Small clusters of white flowers cover the plant in late spring followed by berries—a source of nutrients for birds throughout summer. The foliage of dogwood shrubs is spectacular in fall and transitions into shades of gold, orange, and red (depending on the variety). After the foliage has dropped in winter, the stems of these shrubs glow—making excellent mass plantings or winter cuttings to be brought inside with sprigs of grey-green White Pine or bunches of golden Autumn Joy Sedum.

Recommended varieties. Midwinter Fire Red Twig Dogwood ([pictured above] Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’) appears to be glowing with yellow and orange stems in winter, chartreus leaves in spring, and golden foliage in fall. Variegated Tartarian Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) has attractive green and white leaves in summer and vivid red stems in winter. Yellow Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’) sports bright yellow stems in winter and makes an excellent companion to other Red Twig Dogwoods.

Caveats. Red Twig and Yellow Twig Dogwoods are adaptable shrubs and perform well in moist, well drained locations or areas with occasional flooding. For the best foliage and twig coloration, plant in full sun but part or open shade is acceptable. Older growth will tend to darken over time. To rejuvenate plants, prune older stems back 6 inches from the base to encourage new twigs. Hardy to USDA Zones 2-8.

Heavenly Bamboo (Nandina domestica)

Spotlight. Heavenly Bamboo is one of the most versatile evergreen shrubs in the Pacific Northwest and has colorful foliage spring through winter.

Why you should plant it. Heavenly Bamboo—named after its close resemblance to true bamboo—is an evergreen shrub with rose, coppery, or plum foliage (depending on the variety) and occasional spires of white flowers in summer. In spring, an azure of dissected leaves grow from the tips of darker, older growth creating a two-tone effect that lasts through summer. During fall and winter, as temperatures drop, colors tend to intensify in contrast to bleak landscapes.  Heavenly bamboo is especially apt for softening hard surfaces (such as boulders or fences) or complimenting lager leaved shrubs such as rhododendrons or Goshiki Osmanthus. The feathery foliage sways nicely in gentle breezes.

Recommended varieties. Gulf Stream Heavenly Bamboo ([pictured above] Nandina domestica ‘Gulf Stream’) has coppery new growth in spring that transitions to rosy-red in winter and is often dappled with hues of yellow and orange throughout the year. Gulf Stream has a compact-mounded habit reaching 3’X3’. Plum Passion’s (Nandina domestica ‘Plum Passion’) new growth is a mesmerizing plummy color and has an open habit of up to 5’X3’. Firepower (Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’) is a dwarf variety (2’X2’) that has distinctly broad leaflets that emerge chartreus in spring and then turn blistering red in winter.

Caveats. Heavenly Bamboo is a resilient plant once established and can tolerate periods of drought. For the lushest foliage, though, plant in evenly moist, well-drained soil. Performs well in full sun, part shade, or open shade but tends to have the best coloration in full sun. In warmer climates than the Pacific Northwest, some Heavenly Bamboo species have become invasive. Many varieties (such as the ones listed above), though, have been selected for low or non-existent seed production and are not invasive. Hardy to USDA Zones 6-9 but may be deciduous in colder areas.

Rugosa Rose (Rosa rugosa)

Spotlight. Rugosa Roses are often selected for their rustic beauty—fragrant, single flowers and ruffled, velvety leaves, but they also produce whimsical and brilliant hips in fall and winter.

Why you should plant it. Rugosa Roses are fantastically resilient shrubs that are often used in mass on slopes to control soil erosion. Their spring and summer foliage is especially disease resistant. The blooms of most Rugosas are single and range in shades of pink to white and are consistently fragrant. Once the golden and coppery fall foliage drops, hundreds of tomato or carrot colored hips remain on bare branches. Rugosas can be planted in mass as impenetrable hedges or complimented with blue or grey evergreen shrubs such as the euphorbia pictured above.

Recommended varieties. Hansa (Rosa rugosa ‘Hansa’) has beautiful and fragrant double-pink flowers and fire-engine red hips. The White Rugosa Rose (Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’) has been selected for its pure white blooms and also has bright hips in winter. Plant the White Rugosa intermixed with pink Rugosa Rose varieties.

Caveats. Rugosa roses need full sun for best flowering. Plant in well-drained soil. Resistant to salt-spray and resistant to drought once established. Most varieties are vigorous growers and take heavy pruning well. Hardy to USDA Zones 3-8.

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