Is there anything sadder than the sight of the last few leaves of autumn clinging onto a tree, while what was once an awe-inspiring fall foliage display lays on the ground below slowing turning brown. Gone are the crimsons and scarlets, the golds and ambers, the ochres and magentas and in their place are skeletal maples, blustery winds and overcast skies. But what if there was a way to preserve those autumn colours in your garden and retain those cheerful hues right up until spring…is that something that might interest you?
What if I told you that there was a group of plants that not only fire up in the colder weather but are actually more attractive in the dead of winter than they are in summer, when we’re often not at home anyways. So here are several families of hardy broadleaf evergreen shrubs, conifers and evergreen perennials that keep the spirit of autumn alive from November to early April.
The main problem with Nandina domestica is its common name, Heavenly Bamboo; which makes most gardeners assume that it is quite invasive. The truth is that it does not spread except when used in tropical climates, acting as a clumping evergreen shrub here. This member of the Barberry family is actually very useful in the home landscape, as it works well in ground or in containers. The compact forms such as ‘Gulf Stream’, ‘Moon Bay’ and ‘Harbour Dwarf’ generally mature at 2.5-3’ tall and wide, perhaps a little smaller when grown in a pot. They have a dense, feathery appearance much like bamboo and require no pruning to maintain their growth habit. All are generally lime green in summer with hints of red or copper on the new growth in spring and fall, but with the arrival of cold weather they shift to dramatic hues of scarlet to vermilion. ‘Firepower’ is another compact form (24-30” high and wide) with coarser foliage that transforms to a showy rose-red in the fall, retaining this colour until the new growth flush in spring. Another worthy cultivar is ‘Bonfire’, a recent selection of ‘Gulf Stream’ with pronounced reddish-purple new growth making this variety interesting year-round. The species is also worth looking at but expect a 6-8’ high bush, as well as white flowers (which are uncommon on the compact forms) followed by bright red winter berries that look great as cuts incorporated into Christmas wreaths or porch pot arrangements.
Nandina 'Gulf Stream', Nandina 'Harbour Dwarf', Winter planter with Nandina 'Moon Bay', Nandina 'Firepower'.
These are an often overlooked source of winter colour as most of us are just shopping for them in spring when they are in bloom. That said, the red-flowered cultivars all shift from a glossy deep green to burgundy foliage as soon as we get a few frosts. I have a trio of ‘Hino Crimson’ on both sides of my front sidewalk which fire up to a bright red every autumn, often with contrasting green highlights. Other noteworthy red-flowered cultivars for winter foliage colour include ‘Hahn’s Red’, ‘Johanna’ and ‘Girard’s Hot Shot’ (reddish-orange blooms). One exception to this rule is the bright pink-flowered ‘Variegata’ or ‘Silver Sword’, which turns an eye-catching rose-red with pure white leaf margins.
Azalea 'Girard's Hot Shot' winter foliage, Azalea 'Hahn's Red' winter foliage, Azalea 'Hino Crimson', Azalea 'Variegata' in winter.
There are numerous common names for Leucothoe axillaris and fontanesiana but probably the most prevalent is Fetterbush. The compact ‘Scarletta’ is a favourite of mine as this broadleaf evergreen has new growth of scarlet which matures to a deep green in summer, followed by another shift to burgundy for fall and winter. It is a cross of L. fontanesiana and L. axillaris that matures at 24-30” tall and 3’ wide. Both ‘Curly Red’ and ‘Twisting Red’ have a similar growth habit and foliage flush, with the main difference being fantastically twisted or contorted leaves. Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’ is a great evergreen shrub for open or partial shade. It has an arching habit (averaging 4’ high and wide) with marbled foliage of green and creamy-yellow that takes on rose-pink highlights at spring flush followed by burgundy with the frosts. This easy to care for shrub brightens any garden where intermittent light due to tree canopies can be a challenge.
I almost go into mourning when I see the brilliant butter yellow leaves of Ginkgo biloba finally succumb to the ever-tugging autumn winds, as this is a colour that can be difficult to find in our winter gardens. There are however a few exceptions including a few conifers that actually change or intensify their needle colour with the cold weather. Numerous Mugo pines fit the bill with one of my favorites being ‘Winter Gold’, a cultivar that actually intensifies its bright yellow foliage the colder it gets. Two other cultivars worth looking for include Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ and Pinus strobus ‘Hillside Winter Gold’, both of which bear pale green needles from spring to summer that transform to the deepest of yellows with the advent of fall. Similarly, Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader’ is a dwarf Nordmann Fir with non-prickly needles that intensify with just a few frosts. For those of you with limited space, try Euonymus j. ‘Happiness’, Ilex crenata ‘Golden Gem’ or the evergreen sedge Carex oshimensis ‘Everoro’ all of which provide a consistent shot of gold year-round.
Euonymus j. 'Happiness' , Pinus mugo 'Winter Gold', Abies nordmanniana 'Golden Spreader' , Ilex 'Golden Gem' with burgundy heuchera, Carex 'Everoro'
As sexist as this sounds I sell a lot more male Skimmias than females, the reason being is that they simply look better. The males have larger, more prominent flower clusters and if you choose the red-budded cultivars such as ‘Rubella’ or ‘Rubinetta’, the display is even more eye-catching. While these shade loving shrubs have only deep green foliage year round, the prolific red buds are borne all winter, opening to fragrant white flowers from March to April. They make excellent foundation shrubs on the north or east side of the house and can even be grown in pots indefinitely.
Filling in the Blanks
There are always a few odds and ends of the plant world that provide us with those autumn hues throughout the winter and one of the best of these is Wintergreen or Gaultheria procumbens. Readily available from fall to Christmas, this evergreen subshrub bears bright red berries and glossy bubblegum-scented foliage that shifts to burgundy-red with cool weather, making it ideal for winter displays. I can’t help but be reminded of the fall colours of Fraxinus americana ‘Autumn Purple’ when I see the plum highlights on the tips of Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesen’s Gold’ once the cold winds start blowing.
Lonicera 'Baggesen's Gold' winter foliage.
Last but not least in our look at plants that provide autumn tones in winter are the ever versatile Heucheras, with such a range of foliage colour that there are few plants that they can’t mimic and their compact size make them indispensable for our winter planters.
Heuchera 'Peach Flambe'
Well I hope you start looking at evergreen shrubs and perennials with winter in mind, knowing that you really don’t have to leave the colour bliss of autumn behind if you choose the right plants.
All Images are Copyright to Mike Lascelle 2015-2019.