Spring is almost here, but there’s no need for a blah, boring, brown landscape between now and then. All it takes are some winter-flowering, winter-interest plants to cheer you up until spring arrives.
Allan Hull, nursery manager at Peninsula Hardwood Mulch ( peninsulahardwoodmulchinc.com) in southeastern Virginia,likes the role winter plants play in a four-season garden.
Here, he profiles five favorites, all of which are hardy in the North Carolina Piedmont:
1 Winter Sun mahonia: This evergreen tolerates shade and sun, grows upright and can be maintained to stay 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide. The drought-tolerant plant features prickly leaves that deter deer; its bluish-green color contrasts nicely with the bright yellow spikes that appear December-January from the tip of each cane. Afterward, it produces grape-like berries that birds eat; birds also nest inside the protection of the prickly leaves. Cold hardy to Zone 5.
2 Fatsia japonica: Looking like a huge philodendron, this plant adds an evergreen tropical appearance to your yard. It grows best in shade to part sun because full sun can scorch it. Its loose clusters of white, golf ball-like blooms appear around Halloween, followed by bluish-black, grape-like seeds that ripen and attract birds. Cold hardy to Zone 7.
3 Witch hazel, or Hamaelis: Blooming mid-winter, this cold-hardy, native large shrub or small tree has been improved through grafting, now marketed under names like Jelena, Sunburst Diana and Amethyst. Its fringe-like blossoms open to deliver a delicate citrus fragrance. Even after opening, the petals in a hard freeze close back up and wait for another warm day to open again. The colors are cheery – yellow, orange, red, copper and now lavender. Cold hardy to Zone 3, loves the cold.
4 Camellia: Much has been written and said about these fall-, winter- and spring-blooming beauties. They are staple evergreens that look nice at the corners of a house and along property lines as a living privacy fence. Most grow 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide with a bullet-shaped habit, although there are some smaller hybrids. Birds love to sit in and build nests among their protective foliage. Shade is best for camellias, although fall-flowering sasanquas tolerate mild morning sun. Cold hardy to Zone 6, some burlap barrier protection good for cold winds.
5 Leopard plant, or Ligularia, now Farfugium (Aurea Maculata): Leopard plant has glossy, octagonal dark-green leaves with a random assortment of yellow spots that brighten the winter landscape. It likes shade and moist, loamy soils; it can be drought tolerant and will compete for root space, even against trees. It’s easy to divide, spreads in a controllable manner, and blooms with yellow daisy-like flowers consistently every year in October. Deer don’t bother it, but voles occasionally do. Cold hardy to Zone 7.
“Leopard plant is my favorite perennial,” Allan said. “It has outlived hosta in my garden hands down, now at year 33, never once losing ground. Only in three ice storms has it been driven underground in winter, bouncing right back in spring.”