Native Plants for Winter Interest

Fruit of American holly supports birds such as the cardinal, American robin and eastern bluebird.

Fruit of American holly (Ilex opaca) supports birds such as the cardinal, American robin and eastern bluebird.

By Elaine Mills, Certified Master Gardener
All photos © Elaine Mills

A number of plants native to our region provide continuing value and interest in our gardens into the winter. Their evergreen foliage or interesting bark add beauty to the landscape, while their berries, seeds, or stems provide support to wildlife through the cold months. 

The familiar berry-like drupes of American Holly (Ilex opaca), often used in holiday decorations, remain on this evergreen tree from October into winter on female plants, providing food for 18 bird species. (A male tree is required within 200 feet to assure fruit production.) The 15- to 40-foot tree can be used in the garden as a specimen or a tall hedge, providing cover and nesting sites for birds.

The dense, scale-like, dark green foliage of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), a 30- to 60-foot evergreen conifer, also provides year-round beauty and excellent shelter for birds. Its exfoliating gray to red-brown bark and blue berry-like cones are additional attractive features.

River birch (Betula nigra), a fast-growing deciduous tree of up to 50 feet, combines well with perennials and grasses in the growing season. In winter, its interest in the garden continues after it loses its leaves, revealing its structural elements (it often has multiple trunks) and its attractive bark, peeling in papery layers to reveal a variety of colors. River birch is the larval host for several butterfly and moth species, and its seed is a food source for birds. It can be used as a lawn tree, in large rain gardens, or on stream banks to control erosion.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is the last native shrub to bloom in autumn. Its fragrant yellow flowers with ribbon-like petals bloom from September to December. This tall shrub of 15 to 20 feet can be used as a specimen, patio tree, or in a container. It serves as the larval host to moths.

Although not technically considered a locally native shrub by the Flora of Virginia, red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) has been found to grow well in our area. This 6- to 12-foot shrub has garden interest through the seasons: its fragrant white flowers attract butterflies in late spring; its clusters of whitish fruit support birds; and its fall foliage is colorful. In winter, its distinctive stems turn bright red, making it especially showy against a snowy background. It can be massed as a screen, allowed to colonize to form thickets, or used as a specimen.  Alternatively, it is effective combined with evergreens for winter contrast.

Cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, catbirds, and woodpeckers are among the songbirds that use winterberry holly as a winter food source.

Cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, catbirds, and woodpeckers are among the songbirds that use winterberry holly as a winter food source.

Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) is a native deciduous holly of 6 to 12 feet. Its brilliant red drupes mature on female plants from late August to September and decorate the plant into early spring, providing a winter food source for 48 species of birds. An appropriately matched male plant can be grouped with as many as 6 to 10 females within 40 feet.

 

Our native trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is a vigorous, twining, semi-evergreen vine that deserves a place in the garden through the seasons. While it blooms most profusely with clusters of bright, trumpet-shaped blooms from April to June, attracting bees, hummingbirds and butterflies, it can continue to bloom intermittently until frost. Red berry-like fruit forms and remains on the vine from August to March, serving as a food source for birds such as the purple finch, hermit thrush, and American robin. Honeysuckle can be used as a climber on trellises, arbors, or fences.

Some low-growing native species continue to provide interest in the winter months. Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is a trailing ground cover that forms a dense mat of glossy evergreen leaves. Its paired, fragrant white flowers develop into ruby red fruit from July to December. The blooms support bumblebees, and chipmunks enjoy the fruit. Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), which gets its common name from its evergreen nature and its stocking-shaped pinnae, forms a circular, cascading clump of one half to two feet that increases over time. Its dark green, leathery fronds are renewed with silvery, scaled fiddleheads in the spring. Both of these plants prefer partial to full shade and can be used under shrubs and trees, along shaded walls, or in woodland and rock gardens.

Although summer – and fall-blooming perennials will have finished their flowering by November, it is a good idea to let the stalks of some species remain standing to provide support to wildlife. The seed cones of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) are a winter food source for goldfinches. The attractive rust-colored seed clusters of New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveborascensis) also persist throughout winter, supporting birds. Beneficial insects will overwinter in the stout purple-speckled stems of eastern Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium).

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See an earlier blog post on Native Grasses for Fall and Winter for photos and information on this category of plant.

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