There are numerous shrubs and perennials that shine in the colder months. They take less time to establish, of course, and so their addition to the landscape provides near-immediate payback of year-round attraction. Here are a few examples of perennial winter plants. What’s your go-to selection for a splash of winter fun?
1. Athyrium species
Evergreen ferns lend both color and texture to the cold months, and the selection Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (Japanese painted fern) is an outstanding choice for winter gardens. It’s best suited to sheltered locations, where light shade brings out optimal frond color in spring and summer. Typically reaching up to about 18 inches tall, the graygreen fronds are brushed with silver and accented by maroon to purple midribs. The cultivar ‘Burgundy Lace’ shows a rich, near-metallic burgundy tone that’s at its most brilliant in spring, but stands out all year long.
Hardy in zones 3(4) to 8(9).
Known as “pig squeak” for the high-pitched sound leaves make when they’re rubbed between the thumb and forefinger (how rude!), Bergenia features thick, leathery leaves that are strong enough to withstand snow and cold. Throughout the growing season, foliage is a shiny, medium-green sometimes highlighted by a deeper red to purple margin. Often used as a groundcover, Bergenia reaches 12 to 18 inches tall with a similar spread.
The foliage of the petite cultivar ‘Flirt’ turns nearly black in winter, making it a real standout.
Hardy in zones 3 to 8.
3. Cornus canadensis
It’s considered deciduous, but bunchberry may not lose all of its foliage in winter; if there’s not much snow on the ground, Cornus canadensis can be seen to offer burgundy to purple leaves amid patches of rime and ice. It’s native to cool climates, specifically in coniferous and mixed forests throughout the northern U.S. and Canada, and performs best in cold conditions in the shade of trees and shrubs. Brilliant, shiny red fruit — bunches of berries — persist into winter. Typical mature height is only about 9 inches and it spreads by woody rhizomes, making it a suitable and hardy groundcover in northern gardens.
Hardy in zones 2 to 6.
Erica carnea, the aptly named winter heath or snow heath, forms a dense groundcover supporting needle-like, medium-green leaves. Bloom time is from January to March, during which 6- to 12-inchtall spikes bear tubular flowers ranging from light purple to pink; plants may bloom beneath snow in the more northern locations of their growing range. The cultivar ‘Springwood Pink’ reaches only to about 9 inches tall and can produce light pink flowers that deepen with age, but are persistent from December through May.
Hardy in zones 5 to 7.
5. Helleborus species
Like some people we know, some plants perform best in winter. Helleborus is one such selection, known for its hardy growth and compelling flowers that bloom throughout the coldest months. Both Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose) and H. niger (Christmas rose) are happiest in part to full shade; Lenten rose grows up to 18 inches tall while Christmas rose reaches about 12 inches. Large, cupshaped flowers resembling roses nod from the stems, but a few have been bred to deliver blooms that face upright. Flower color is widely variable, ranging from white through pink to the darkest blue-black.
The deep-hued double hellebore pictured here is Terra Nova’s ‘Onyx Odyssey’, part of the company’s Winter Jewels™ collection.
Hardy in zones 3 to 9.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in American Nurseryman Magazine.