The Wonders of the Winter Landscape

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

[A note from Nan: We welcome a new Guest Contributor here at GGW: Vincent A. Simeone. Vinnie is is a professional horticulturist and lecturer who has written four gardening books published by Ball: Great Flowering Landscape Shrubs (2005), Great Flowering Landscape Trees (2006), Great Landscape Evergreens (2007) and Wonders of the Winter Landscape (2005). He’s also the Director of Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay, NY. You can check out his web site here.]

In 2005 I wrote a gardening book entitled Wonders of the Winter Landscape. At the time many people, professionals and hobbyists alike admitted to me that they had never really given much thought to the garden in winter. But for many years I have had a great admiration for the winter season and its mysterious and breathtaking qualities. I think even as gardeners, we sometimes need to be reminded that we do have the benefit of four distinct seasons in the northeast and many other parts of the US and winter is undoubtedly the most unique. It certainly is my favorite time to enjoy the bare bones of the garden, the bright, glowing fruit of a shrub or the interesting texture and color of bark of trees and shrubs.

In honor of the garden in winter, I have assembled my five top woody plants to brighten your garden in winter. While there are many mainstream trees and shrubs we can all think about for the winter garden, I have chosen some rather select species and their cultivars of some popular plants as well as a few unusual species with limited distribution. All of these woody plants offer unlimited beauty and versatility in the landscape, especially in winter.

Hamamelis x intermedia

While we all know and love the Chinese (H. mollis) and Japanese (H. japonica) witchhazel and their cultivars, the hybrids of these two species known as H. x intermedia is far more popular and available. What is exciting about this species is the incredible diversity in flower color and size.  Yellow is no longer the norm.

Now witchhazel come in a variety of colors including, light or golden yellow, orange and maroon among other variations. There are a bunch of varieties of witchhazel now available, especially through mail order catalogues from the west coast. Among my favorites are ‘Angelly’, ‘Arnold Promise’, ‘Diane’ (above), ‘Jelena’ and ‘Sunburst’ (below).

‘Jelena’ (below), a popular cultivar, has large, bright coppery orange flowers opening a bit earlier then most and generally having a vigorous growth rate.

Ilex verticillata

Winterberry holly is another winter shrub that we can all identify this time of year. But unlike its evergreen holly counterparts, Winterberry in my opinion is even more noticeable and functional in many landscapes because the berries are not hidden by foliage in the winter. The “verticillate” or whorled pattern to the fruit display is even more distinctive.

So many new and interesting cultivars and hybrids are associated with this species. ‘Winter Red’, ‘Winter Gold’, ‘Autumn Glow’, ‘Sunset’ and ‘Sparkleberry’ are a few excellent cultivars. But my favorite is ‘Red Sprite’, a slower growing, and semi-dwarf plant with exceptionally large fruit. As for male pollinators, I find ‘Southern Gentleman’ and ‘Jim Dandy’ to be quite effective.

Ilex ‘Mary Nell’

Another  Ilex that makes my list is an evergreen type that has been around since the 1980’s but is finally more available in commerce. ‘Mary Nell’ is a hybrid holly that is specifically grown for its lustrous, dark green foliage.

While the orange red berries are available with the right pollinator, they are greatly overshadowed by the striking, dense foliage. This plant is not as cold hardy as many evergreen species with zones 6-9 being the best option.

Picea orientalis

Oriental Spruce is among the most versatile and ornamental of all conifers. This elegant, graceful evergreen is not only adaptable but will offer year round interest in the landscape. While the straight species tends to grow larger then the average residential landscape can accommodate, several dwarf or semi-dwarf cultivars are available for the site with limited space. Oriental Spruce offers dark green, delicate needles that are a half to a quarter of the size of Norway or Colorado Spruce.

The dense habit and sweeping branches are also quite striking. ‘Gowdy’ (below), ‘Nana’ and ‘Pendula’ are a few excellent varieties for residential gardens.

Oriental Spruce will undoubtedly get better with age as it establishes and will provide many years of enjoyment, especially in the naked winter landscape.

Pinus bungeana

Lacebark Pine rounds out my top five because of its sheer beauty and ruggedness in the landscape. Lacebark Pine is a three-needle pine with stiff, dark green needles, a dense rounded habit and multi-colored, exfoliating bark. While interesting year round, the flaking bark displaying shades of silver, green and beige is most effective during the winter. Young plants start off dense and shrubby and grow into upright trees. The bark effect improves as the plant matures.

Several interesting cultivars have emerged including ‘Silver Ghost’, with striking silvery grey bark and ‘Temple Gem’, with a dwarf, dense habit. No matter which one you decide on, Lacebark Pine will not disappoint. Unlike many species of pine, it is rather durable, pest resistant and adaptable in the landscape.  Patience in needed for the first few years before plants will grow steadily once established.

I have the true pleasure of managing Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay, NY, where I can enjoy all of these garden treasures, not to mention a picturesque Olmsted Landscape in winter.

For me, I am most inspired by the garden in winter. While traditionally we think of the winter as a time for the garden to rest, I think we have infinite possibilities to make the garden come to life during the winter. To me the glorious journey of gardening is at its best on the road less traveled in the winter landscape.

Vincent A. Simeone

Vincent A. Simeone

Vincent A. Simeone

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18 Comments… add one

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Lisa at Greenbow January 17, 2010, 7:53 am

Welcome to GGW Vinnie. I like your first topic. I was just in the garden yesterday looking to see what was popping during this January thaw. I will look foward to reading your bits of interest you share here.

Ann Williams January 17, 2010, 2:32 pm

Vinnie, We are ‘officially’ located in Z. 5, but I plant for Z. 3-4 because of our proximity to Mount Washington and the wicked weather patterns it generates. Do you think the Picea Orientalis and/or the Pinus Bungeana would be candidates for the edge of our woods?? They’re striking! BTW, we have an Olmsted descendant living in town; his son is at the Arnold Arboretum…

Vinnie Simeone January 17, 2010, 5:03 pm

Hi Ann, Both Picea orientalis and Pinus bungeana should survive in your zone. I would suggest siting in partial shade along a woodland edge like you suggest, especially careful to site away from real exposed, windy areas. Otherwise they should do fine. You may want to try a mail order source if you cant find them locally. There is a link on my website for plant sources.

good luck


Vinnie Simeone January 17, 2010, 5:05 pm

Hi Lisa,

Thank you for your introduction. I look forward to conversing with fellow gardeners over the virtues of the winter landscape.


Vinnie Simeone

Les January 17, 2010, 7:32 pm

Down here I would have to strike the Picea, which struggles and replace them with Camellias. Great post otherwise!

Vinnie Simeone January 17, 2010, 9:28 pm


Picea orientalis is remarkably tolerant but probably no further then zone 7b. No question it looks better and performs better in northern climates.

Susan aka Miss R January 18, 2010, 8:10 am

You have included two of my favorite evergreens. There is an incredible amount to appreciate in the winter landscape if we put aside our idea that a garden has to be green and full of blooms.

Vinnie Simeone January 18, 2010, 10:22 am

Susan, which two are your favorites?

Jayne January 18, 2010, 11:44 am

Great post Vinnie. After our freeze down here in Texas, which was just so unexpected, my neighbors and I were bemoaning our bare, brown gardens. I’m planning on finding some Texas natives that will add some winter interest to the garden.

Vinnie Simeone January 18, 2010, 11:59 am

Jayne, did your Crape Myrtles pull through?

Cyndy January 18, 2010, 1:36 pm

Beautiful post – those piceas are so beautiful. Right now I’m enjoying some pieris still carrying a lot of berries and a coral bark maple. Winter is beautiful if go out and look!

Dee/reddirtramblings January 20, 2010, 10:10 am

Thank you for your suggestions. I dearly love my ‘Diane’ and ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazels. They brighten a tired winter landscape here in Oklahoma. As for hollies in general, what did I ever do without them?~~Dee

Vinnie Simeone January 20, 2010, 3:10 pm

Dee, what hollies are you growing in Oklahoma?

Mr. McGregor's Daughter January 21, 2010, 10:28 am

Here in the frozen tundra of Chicagoland, it seems woody plants are about the only winter interest going. Thanks for sharing some that are new to me, such as the Picea orientalis. I have Hammamelis ‘Sunburst’ and, while I love the size and color of the flowers, I’m disappointed in its lack of scent. I wish I had room for ‘Diane’ or one of the maroon flowered Witchhazels.

Vinnie Simeone January 21, 2010, 5:47 pm

Yes, typically only H. mollis and cvs have a fragrance. The H. x intermedia types typically dont. Time to plant more witchhazels!

Carol January 25, 2010, 7:20 pm

Vinnie – What a pleasant surprise to see a familiar name. As a former Long Islander, I spent many happy hours wandering around Planting Fields Arboretum. It’s a truly beautiful place and one of the things I miss about LI. I enjoyed your post and look forward to future ones.

Vinnie Simeone February 4, 2010, 9:11 pm

Hi All, In case anyone is interested, on my website there is a new garden segment on the martha Stewart Show from February 3rd on Witchhazels you you might all enjoy!

Laurrie at My Weeds Are Sorry February 8, 2010, 7:19 am

Great article. I love my winter garden. I spend more time looking at it in winter than in summer, since looking is all there is to do – no chores or projects to distract! But the berries on my ilex verticillata aren’t a feature in winter. By mid December the berries are completely eaten and it’s a nice enough branched structure the rest of the winter, but nothing to catch the eye. The red berries are spectacular for that very brief time, but most of the year for me it’s kind of a filler shrub in the mid border. But the birds are happy!

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