University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Boone and Winnebago counties

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Winter Interest

In northern Illinois, at least four months out of the year are wintry. The flowers and leaves that dominate spring and summer gardens are gone. Many landscapes are dull and boring, but they don’t have to be. By assessing the landscape now, planning for winter interest, and modifying the yard this spring, next winter’s yard will be pleasant and appealing even if the weather is cold and gray.

The first step is to look out the window. Particular attention should be paid to the views from frequently used windows and areas near exterior doors. The typical winter landscape is subdued with subtle accents of color and form. An attractive winter landscape features colorful fruits or interesting seed heads, unusual or appealing branching structure or plant form, ornamental bark of trees and shrubs, and a foundation of evergreens. If these characteristics are missing or limited, it is time to consider adding one or more of the following ideas to the yard.

Crabapples and hawthorns can be the stars of the winter landscape. Their bright fruits grace the trees like jewelry until early spring. In general, the smaller fruits are harder, so birds put off eating them until late winter.

Hundreds of crabapple cultivars are available, so a wise homeowner will select one with disease resistance as well as other desired characteristics. White flowered crabapples have pink to red flower buds, medium green leaves, yellow fall color, and red or yellow fruits. Yellow fruits deepen to cider-orange after several heavy frosts. Dark pink flowered or "rosybloom" crabapples have dark green leaves and dark red fruits. Top rated red fruited crabs include Sugar Tyme, Red Jewel, Adirondack, and Prairifire. Some high quality yellow fruited cultivars are Golden Raindrops, Ormiston Roy, and White Cascade. Many other good crabapples are available as well. In addition to their colorful fruits crabapples have attractive peeling bark.

Hawthorns tend to be under used in the home landscape. In winter their eye-catching fruits and flaking bark are an asset. Hawthorns have white flowers in spring and orange-red fall color. Like crabapples, hawthorns are susceptible to a number of diseases so care should be taken when deciding on a variety. The two best hawthorns for the home landscape are Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and Winter King hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’). Washington hawthorns range from multistemmed vase-shaped to rounded 30 foot trees. The 1/2 inch glossy red fruits last all winter. Washington hawthorn lives up to its name with numerous 1 to 3 inch thorns. On the other hand, Winter King hawthorn is almost thornless. It reaches a mature height of 25 feet with a rounded crown. It has lovely light gray and tan checkered bark.

Ornamental grasses win the award for best winter seed display. Ranging in color from tans to rusts, the decorative seedheads come in a variety of forms including plumes and tails.

Plant forms and branching patterns are significant in winter. Weeping, layered, or contorted plants are more visible without leaves hiding their shape. Snow will collect on the topside of horizontal tree branches emphasizing the plant’s distinctive form. My favorite with this characteristic is pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), with bur oak a close second.

The color and texture of bark can be a major attribute in the winter landscape. For example the peeling shiny orange bark of paperbark maple (Acer griseum) is a standout against the snow. Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) has lovely shredding brown and cinnamon-red bark. Attractive bark may be understated like the smooth striated grays of serviceberry (Amelanchier) or the undulating gray bark of musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana). Shrubs may also be used for their interesting bark. A plant primarily grown for its winter bark is redosier or redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea). For those who do not like red, a yellow cultivar is available.

Evergreen conifers are the backbone of the winter landscape. Spruces, pines, junipers, and arborvitae are commonly used in northern Illinois but douglasfir, hemlock, and fir are good choices too. With the availability today of a variety of conifers, gardeners should use these plants for more than windbreaks and foundation plantings. The specimen blue spruce in the front yard can easily be replaced with a number of other unusual and easy to grow conifers, that make a statement in the landscape year round.

Northerners need to plan their landscape for year round beauty. The winter landscape can be as picturesque as summer with careful observation, planning, and planting.

Past Issues

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