Winter Interest with Native Plantings

The cold and dreary days of Winter seem endless in January and February, especially during a pandemic when we are not getting out as much as we’re used to. But by providing food and shelter for native animals and birds, with good selections of native plants, we can brighten up our landscapes and our lives. Seemingly barren native trees, shrubs, and plants can provide us beauty in the landscape as well as wildlife habitat during the cold days of winter.

Cardinal perching on native sycamore tree
Cardinal perching on native sycamore tree in winter

What is a Native Plant?

Usually, the native plant designation refers to the natural flora that existed before Europeans settled, co-evolving for many hundreds of years without the help of man. You might already have some native plants in your garden and want to add to them, or if you instead grow non-natives, you can gradually replace them with natives. Easier to do in stages, there is an abundance of native choices that may be easier to grow and naturally resistant to pests and require less maintenance as an added bonus. And I always look for winter interest when selecting a new native plant to plant, as I want to be able to enjoy my plantings all year long.

Non-native plants
Non-native plants fill our landscapes

Trees

An old native Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) anchors my property and is one of the largest deciduous trees in North America, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry. Easy to spot in the winter landscape with mottled white and grey bark, you can spot them from afar as a tall sentinel popping up above the canopy. Resistant to air pollution, I enjoy the welcome shade from its large leaves covering my patio. Requiring lots of room, this is a great wildlife selection because birds eat the seeds- goldfinch, chickadees, dark-eyed juncos – and small mammals like squirrels, muskrat, and beaver.  The leaves are a host to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Sycamore is a great alternative tree to replace the Ash tree that is currently under attack from the Emerald Ash Borer.

Native Sycamores stand out in the winter landscape
Native Sycamores stand out in the winter landscape

River Birch (Betula nigra) is also known for its bark, but the bark display is more dramatic than a Sycamore. Growing rapidly where white Birches fail to thrive, renowned ecologist Douglas Tallamy, ranks birches in the Top 5 best woody plants for wildlife.

My River Birch in winter
My River Birch in winter

Another great tree choice is a Redbud (Cercis canadensis) which has great limb structure and dangling brown seedpods enjoyed by many birds and small mammals. 

Redbud in winter
Redbud in winter

Hollies, both deciduous and evergreen, are a stellar native selection. I have a long border of American Holly (Ilex opaca), that I planted when they were about 6 inches tall. Seven years later they tower over me at over 8 feet tall and provide nesting sites for many of my visiting birds. Birds prefer to shelter in sturdy evergreen trees that provide protection from wind and predators, and I frequently find old nests stuck within the branches.

American Holly 'Satyr Hill' forming a screen
American Holly ‘Satyr Hill’ forming a screen
An evergreen holly in snow stands out
An evergreen holly in snow stands out

The bright red holly berries are very desirable food for birds and in a winter snow, the branches are bright spots of color easily seen from my house about 50 feet away. Useful for using in holiday arrangements, American Hollies can be pruned to stay at a mature height of around 15 feet, making it a more feasible backyard option than other larger Holly trees.

Shrubs

Winterberry Hollies
Winterberry Hollies

Winterberries, a deciduous holly (Ilex verticilatta) are one of the most striking natives with winter interest because when the leaves fall, the berries stand out in the landscape. Coming in an array of colors, Winter Gold is my favorite.

Winter Gold before the leaves fall off
Winter Gold before the leaves fall off
Winter Gold holly

Needing both a male and female for good fruit production, the inconspicuous flowers are flocked to by my honeybees, followed by dense clusters of large berries after the leaves disappear.  A medium sized shrub from 6 to 10 feet high, it is an adaptable naturalizer and useful for moist sites and a larval host for Henry’s Elfin Butterfly.

Winterberry hollies come in a rainbow of colors
Winterberry hollies come in a rainbow of colors

For late fall and early winter,one of the best choices is Witch Hazel, Hamamelis virginiana with its curious spider-like fragrant yellow flowers. An understory small tree or large shrub, it flowers when most other shrubs and trees aren’t blooming in shady or sunny locations. An often-overlooked shrub in the summer, with medium green crinkled leaves, the pollinator for this is not bees, unless we get a warm spell, but a winter moth that is active on very cold nights.

The flowers of Witch hazel are very fragrant
The flowers of Witch hazel are very fragrant

Amazingly, the moths have the unique ability to raise their body temperature by the simple method of shivering to find their food on freezing nights.  Witch hazel can be grown in containers for a few years for a great pot plant, but as it gets older, it will need to be transplanted into the landscape. The supple branches are still used as divining rods to search for water sources. Wild turkeys and squirrels feed on the seeds and it is the larval host for several butterfly species. An astringent made from the leaves and bark is still sold worldwide for a variety of uses.

American Witch Hazel in full boom in December- picture by Gretchen Schmidl

Tag Alder (Alnus serrulate), a multi-stemmed deciduous shrub, has wonderful dangling catkins and attractive cone-like fruits in the winter landscape, and in spring the fresh toothed leaves are attractive. Growing well in a moist location, this is a greatly under-used shrub with high wildlife value.

 Tag Alder's cones and catkins in winter
Tag Alder’s cones and catkins in winter

Perennials & Grasses

The native Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is one of my favorite perennials for winter interest because of the pyramidical seed heads left over from the beautiful reddish-purple flower. Allowing the seed heads to remain for wildlife offers up a winter long smorgasbord of seeds to sustain birds and other small mammals. Small birds will perch right on the seed head and pluck the seeds out and larger ones will forage for fallen seeds on the ground. Both Coneflower, Rudbeckia, and Milkweed seed heads make a great visual show against another native, Pink Muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillari), which also provides seed heads and nesting materials for native birds.

Coneflower seed heads against Pink Muhly Grass
Coneflower seed heads against Pink Muhly Grass
Coneflower seed heads in winter

Creeping Phlox (Phlox subulata) is an unlikely candidate for winter interest. An evergreen mat-forming perennial that I use for landscaping frequently because of its deer resistance. Sun-loving, and easy to grow, it is attractive to butterflies and other insect pollinators during the warmer months, and valuable as a structure plant in the winter. I grow my creeping phlox draped over a sunny wall and probably enjoy it as much during the winter as the spring.

Creeping Phlox on wall in winter creates structure in the garden
Creeping Phlox on wall in winter creates structure in the garden
Creeping Phlox in the spring
Creeping Phlox in the spring

Lastly, Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) forms evergreen rosettes of leathery dark green foliage. Preferring moist woodland conditions in partial to full shade it can be used as a ground cover under shrubs and trees. Easy to spot on the woodland floor in winter, deer leave this plant alone and it can form quite large clumps.

Christmas Fern in Winter
Christmas Fern in Winter

7 Replies to “Winter Interest with Native Plantings”

    1. The witch hazel is stunning! But to get the native, you need to get the American witch hazel. Hopefully native plant sales will be up and running this spring.

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