Winter Interest Using Trees and Shrubs

Looking outside your window on a drab winter day can be rather depressing.  If you plant shrub sand trees that have winter interest your outlook can be changed dramatically and even brighten your daily view from the house!  Below is a small selection of plants that can help beat the battle of the winter blues.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis sp.):Superb winter interest from these shrubs.  Ranging between 6 and 15 feet in height and spread they can be planted in full sun to part shade in a woodland bed or as a specimen plant in a shrub border.  Flowering occurs on bare wood with colours ranging from yellow to dark red depending the variety.  Autumn leaf colour is also strong with colours ranging from burnt copper to yellow.  The Virginia witch hazel (H. virginiana) has 6” leaves which turn yellow in autumn and bears small yellow flowers in autumn.  The fragrance of some of the varieties is also delightful. Varieties include:

  • Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’: This has dark copper red flowers in mid-late winter, with autumn leaf colour ranging from red to yellow/orange.
  • Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’: This has large copper orange flowers in mid-late winter with autumn leaf colour ranging from orange to red.
  • Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’: This has large yellow flowers in mid-late winter with autumn leaf colour ranging from yellow to deep orange.

Winter creeper (Euonymus fortunei cultivars): These evergreen shrubs have a broad range of colour in their leaves that could satisfy most palettes. They grow best in full sun although they tolerate shade, and can be trained to cover walls and shady stumps although the possibility of winter burn does exist depending on the severity of the winter winds and the plants exposure to this. Their height ranges from 24” to 15’ depending on the use chosen.  Varieties include:

  • Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’: This is a compact form that can reach 3’. It has bright green leaves that have white margins.  These can become tinged with pink in cold winter climates.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
  • Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ‘n Gold’: This bushy shrub has green leaves with broad gold margins that can also turn pink in winter.                     
  • Euonymus fortunei ‘Silver Queen’:


Birch (Betula sp.): These trees improve with age, the paperbark or white birch ( papyrifera) makes an impressive statement in the winter border as a specimen, or if you have more space as small clumps or groves. Stems can also be used for winter flower arrangements.










Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata cultivars): These shrubs can also become small trees if left alone to grow. They have small white flowers in mid spring which turn into bright red fruit, often lasting into the following spring.  Varieties include:

  • Ilex verticillata ‘Nana syn. ‘Red Sprite’: A female shrub that produces many bright red large fruits. This form can reach 4’.                                                              
  • Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’: This is another female form that has long lasting vibrant red berries and can reach up to 8’.                                              

Blood twig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea cultivars): These upright, deciduous shrubs are stunning in the depths of winter. The shoots turn vibrant red by autumn and bear white flowers in summer.  They can grow up to 10’ and have round blue/black fruit.  Varieties include:

  • Cornus sanguinea ‘Winter Beauty’: This bears orange-yellow shoots tipped with red in winter. Grows 5-6’ tall.                                                                   
  • Red Osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera cultivars): These are vigorous shrubs that like to sucker and have dark red shoots in winter. They tolerate wet soils and can reach up to 6’.  The ‘Osier’ in the name reflects the close similarity of the branches to the Osier willow.  A great effect can be achieved by combining the blood twig and yellow twig dogwoods in either a shrub border or as a hedge.  Varieties include:
  • Cornus stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’ (Yellow twig dogwood): Reaching up to 6’ this plant bears white flowers in early summer. The stems are a vibrant yellow green and this plant grows well in full sun or part shade.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     
  • Cornus stolonifera ‘Kelseyi’ syn. ‘Nana’: This is a dwarf variety reaching just over 2’. The winter shoots are yellow-green but have red tips.                 

Coral bark maple (Acer palmatum sp.): A great structural tree for a small space, the Acer Sango Kaku has strong winter colour on the branches. Autumn leaf colour is particularly good too.  The tree reaches between 15 and 25’.








Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia sp.): As these trees age the bark reveals beautiful layers of cinnamon colouration.  White (Natchez) and purple (Muskogee) flowering trees are the hardiest in Virginia, with both averaging an eventual height of 20-25’

  • Cinnamon bark on Natchez crepe myrtle









Cork screw hazel (Corylus avellana contorta): This hazel has great interest as a specimen in the border. The twisting branches give playful character to any space.  Care must be taken to remove any root suckers as they are usually not contorted.  Plants can reach 8-10’.