A Gardener’s Leap of Faith

2-5 Edgeworthia chrysantha

Edgeworthia chrysantha. Photo by Pete Prown

By Pete Prown

Much like planting spring bulbs in October, adding “winter interest” trees and shrubs to your landscape requires a certain leap of faith by the gardener. But rest assured, the payoff is quite handsome for gardeners with imagination and understanding of the plants that will work in their landscapes.

Jessie Keith, garden writer and horticulturist at the American Public Gardens Association, offers good general advice for winter schemes: “Plant gold, orange, and red winterberry (Ilex verticillata) together for a big show of warm color. These are further complemented by the bright red twigs of the red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’), or a yellow variety (C. sericea ‘Budd’s Yellow’). Keep in mind that red- and yellow-twig dogwoods can get large, so plant them where they can branch out. Flame-twig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea ‘Winter Flame’) is also popular these days, giving a brilliant display in the bleakest days of winter.”

Steve Mostardi of Mostardi’s Nursery in Newtown Square says, “There is a renewed interest in berries — in addition to standard winterberries, there are new varieties with smaller, more compact growth habits such as ‘Little Goblin’ and ‘Wildfire.’ In the ground cover category, people are crazy about wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), whose candy-like berries are outstanding in winter planters. The red-berry theme even extends to houseplants, with the increased availability of Ardisia, whose clusters of berries remain effective indoors all winter long.”

One of the simplest pleasures of the winter garden is texture. In the absence of abundant flowers, texture grabs the eye on colder days. Walk around Scott Arboretum and you will see the curly, peeling barks, such as paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and river birch (Betula nigra). Also look for dried seedheads still clinging on (oakleaf hydrangea, perhaps), and ripening flower buds that hold the promise of warm weather to come. A real treat is the unusual, but eye-catching woody shrub Edgeworthia chrysantha. It has flower buds that swell in winter into a nodding “umbel” covered with silky hairs. Look for prime specimens near the Lang Performing Arts Center and in the Terry Shane Teaching Garden.

Among favorite winter-interest plants, Tom Reber, landscape director at Bartram’s Garden, says, “I love minor bulbs like winter aconite, squill, and snowdrops. One of the best early plants is Adonis amurensis, which blooms before its foliage comes out. Witch hazels are great, but also in that family is Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica), which has phenomenal bark and blooms in late winter with a purple, spidery flower.”

Beyond planning for winter-interest in your own backyard, the colder months are also a great time for rambling though woods, where you can sometimes find the bold red stems of native black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis). Reber adds, “Another woodland favorite of mine is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which takes some of its stored energy and uses it to thaw the soil around the stalk. This heat can actually melt snow and helps push its alien-looking flower out. You’ll find this native along streams and in marshy wetlands, and it’s a sure sign of spring.”

Pete Prown of Rose Valley is communications editor at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (bartramsgarden.org.)

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