Dazzle Your Winter Landscape With Colorful Trees and Shrubs

River birch is a handsome ornamental shade tree that adds interesting character to the garden. Photographer: Betty Freeze

As I look out my study window at the bare trees and brown fields around me, I’m struck by the colors and textures of the landscape. I know that many people think of winter as a gray, dreary season, but I see beauty in the subtle tans and browns of the woods, the contrasting colors of the leaves as they skitter across the grass, and the icy slate sky.

Of course, as I write this there is a blaze in the fireplace and a cup of hot tea at hand, which allow me to be more generous in my praise of the cold scenic view. If you’re one of the folks who find the winter landscape more bleak than beautiful, I’d like to make some suggestions about how you might tweak your garden or yard to add a little dazzle to your day. There are many trees and shrubs that provide a pop of color and look their best when their “bone structure” in winter is on full display.

`A classic winter shrub to brighten the garden is winterberry, a deciduous holly with bright red berries. Ilex verticillata is an Arkansas native that can reach 8 to 10 feet tall, but there are more “user friendly” varieties like ‘Red Sprite’ that grow only 3 to 5 feet tall. In addition to enjoying the profuse red berries in the landscape, you can easily cut branches to bring inside and enjoy — win-win.

Another berry alternative is firethorn, or pyracantha, an evergreen shrub that displays brilliant orange to red berries in winter. You don’t see it as often as winterberry, mainly because of its thorns, but that makes it an excellent selection for a barrier hedge. A healthy specimen is a stunning sight this time of year.

This Japanese maple has striking red bark that is prominent in the fall and winter. Photographer: Betty Freeze

If berries are too subtle for you, then I recommend the bright red tree trunk and matching scarlet branches of the Japanese coral bark maple. The cultivar ‘Sango Kaku’ can reach 15 to 25 feet tall and wide, a very manageable size for a small yard. You’ll see the best color in full sun, but this maple will also take light shade. If you haven’t seen one of these trees in person, then you should track one down.  It’s stunning year-round, but it really shines in winter — picture this beauty covered with a light dustig of snow.

And don’t overlook the value of showy evergreens in the landscape. There are several yellow false cypress that absolutely glow in the gray winter months.  Chamaecyparis ‘Golden Mop,’ reaches 3 feet tall, and Chamaecyparis ‘Crippsii,’ grows to a more stately 8 to 10 feet tall. Both have bright chartreuse-colored needles that might resemble a spotlight in your yard. In fact, the only thing more brilliant on a dull January day than a ‘Golden Mop’ cypress is a ‘Golden Mop’ cypress growing near a couple of coral bark maples. 

If you’re looking for something more understated — because let’s face it, there’s nothing understated about a ‘Golden Mop’ — then consider trees or shrubs that have ornamental bark. Don’t think you can get excited by tree bark? I dare you to look at the trunk of a paperbark maple and not be impressed. It’s beautiful as a maple, yes, but it’s claim to fame is its peeling, cinnamon-colored bark that covers the entire tree. You’ll want to place one near your deck or patio where you can appreciate it close up in every season.

The memory of my childhood pine inspire my spring planting ideas. Photographer: Betty Freeze

Oakleaf hydrangeas also have a peeling bark and come in a variety of sizes, from the relatively small ‘Ruby Slippers’ at 4 feet tall to the straight species, which can reach up to 12 feet tall. This is one of those hydrangeas that appreciates a little shade in the summer, so I’d site it where it has some protection from the hot afternoon sun.

So don’t feel blah when you look out your window this time of year. There are lots of subtle and not-so-subtle colors and textures to be found in the landscape. You can appreciate the interplay of nature’s browns, tans, and grays, or go wild with red tree bark and yellow evergreens. Either way, enjoy the bone structure of the landscape.