Winter is still with us but a number of winter interest plants are already brightening an otherwise sleeping garden. Winter blooming plants like witch hazel (Hamamelis), hellebore (Helleborus), mahonia (Mahonia), Japanese pieris (Pieris), and paperbush (Edgeworthia) are especially good at harking the coming of spring.
If you are unfamiliar with winter blooming plants, take advantage of an unseasonably warm winter day and visit the Missouri Botanical Garden. The garden has a rather impressive witch hazel planting in the Jenkins Daylily Garden plus just outside the fence surrounding the Doris I. Schnuck Children's Garden. There are also many specimens in both the English Woodland Garden and Japanese Garden. If you remember your witch hazels, the eastern witch hazel (H. virginiana) blooms in the fall and all the rest (H. mollis, H. vernalis and H. x intermedia) start blooming in mid- to late-winter. Many selections, most especially the vernal witch hazels (H. vernalis) bloom while retaining leaves (marcescent), while others drops their leaves and allow their spidery blooms to take center stage. It is hard to say which is more beautiful, and with so many to choose from, limited space may be a serious frustration.
Bark can also add striking winter interest through color and texture. None though may have as beautiful bark as the lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia). As its bark sheds, an overall layered mottled palette of grays, cream and orange emerges, which only becomes more beautiful as the tree matures. Whereas the lacebark elm is ultimately a medium-sized tree, the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is one of the most massive trees native to eastern North America, making its mottled white bark all the more spectacular. It is never as beautiful as it is in winter, grabbing all the attention just as the Washington monument would in its place.
For a smaller plant with great winter interest, the shrubby deciduous dogwoods cannot be beat for their screaming red or yellow winter twig growth. The red/yellow twig dogwoods (C. sericea) do sucker but their size is easily managed through annual pruning.