Best Plants for Winter Interest

We’ve had a lot of snow early, a lot of fog recently, ice and more snow and who knows what next! But, if you are a gardener in Minnesota, you know you will have several months with your garden under snow or something like it. It’s time for some “winter interest”.

A pergola, some red twig dogwood and a backdrop of large evergreens makes this winter scene interesting.

A pergola, some red twig dogwood and a backdrop of large evergreens makes this winter scene interesting.

Suzy Bales, author of The Garden in Winter, recommends adding interest with structures, ornaments, conifers, shrubs and trees with colorful, textural or structural interest. A beautiful structure — a wooden pergola, a wrought iron fence, a bright red shed — will provides a garden anchor, but the most cost effective way to add interest is with plants. Basically, these fall into three categories — evergreen shrubs and trees, things with berries and plants with unusual bark or stem colors.

One thing to consider when planting for winter interest is the view. Make sure your most exciting winter plants are easily seen from the indoors. Look out your favorite window before deciding where to place these winter plants.


In our list of 30 Great Plants for Northern Gardens, one of the first we recommended was the Black Hills spruce, a hardy, Minnesota native with that classic Christmas tree shape and needles that range from bright green to almost blue. Use them as a wind break on a large property. For smaller spaces, add evergreen interest with fun trees like a Tolleson’s blue weeping juniper or a more diminutive cultivar of a large tree or shrub such as the Techny or Technito arborvitae. With evergreen shrubs, sometimes the interest is in how they are shaped. For a Japanese garden feel, consider planting several round or conical shrubs in a grouping. These gardens really look best with the colors are muted and the shapes and textures stand out. For ideas, check out the Japanese garden at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum or other public gardens.

Things with Berries

High bush cranberries persist long after the snow flies.

High bush cranberries persist long after the snow flies.

Jewel-like berries glistening in the slanted light of January give the northern gardener hope, and that is reason enough to plant a variety of plants with berries. That the berries feed hungry birds and other critters is another benefit. There are dozens of choices and two of the best are winterberry and viburnum. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is also called winterberry holly. In Minnesota, the plant drops its leaves in the fall, but bright red berries remain much of the winter. A popular variety is ‘Red Sprite’, which has loads of stunning berries. In order to get fruit set on winterberry, you need to plant both male and female plants. ‘Jim Dandy’ is often recommended to go with ‘Red Sprite’.

Bright berries also linger on the many varieties of Viburnum, including the American high bush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), which sports clusters of red berries that can hang on until spring, if the birds don’t eat them. Many crabapple trees will hold onto their fruit through the winter, feeding birds and adding a drops of color to the otherwise white landscape. Varieties with persistent fruit include Sugar Tyme™, Prairie Fire and ‘Red Jade’.

Bark and Stem Color

Oak leaves covered with hoar frost add magic to the winter landscape.

Oak leaves covered with hoar frost add magic to the winter landscape.

The red twig dogwood is a classic Minnesota plant and well-worth including in your garden for its bright red stems that provide stark contrast to white snow. (The branches are also great for collecting and adding to holiday containers.) But there are other plants that have interesting bark and stems.

Birches feature peeling bark, and the river birch is particularly lovely if you have a moist spot where it will thrive. Plants such as willows (‘Flame’ willow is a good one though it requires regular maintenance), members of the cherry family (Amur chokecherry particularly) or ironwood trees with their deeply ridged bark also offer interesting colors and textures. You might also consider planting some of the oaks that hold onto their leaves into the winter, such as the northern pin oak or the white swamp oak. These leaves add texture to the landscape and provide a perfect surface for hoar frost to form.

What is your favorite plant for winter interest?





  1. GWLandscapes on January 27, 2015 at 3:52 am

    It is a struggle for gardeners and garden enthusiasts to keep plants alive all throughout the year, especially during the winter. Nevertheless, thanks for this resource. For sure many gardens will be alive in the cold season because here are plants that can persist through such condition.

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