CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Four native plants for winter interest

By Irene Shonle, CSU Extension in Gilpin County

It’s January, and the winter is still stretched out in front of us. It’s the time of year when gardeners start to wilt (improved only by the arrival of garden catalogs and the prospect of starting seeds.)
If you want to brighten your winter outlook, consider planting some plants that provide winter interest.  Here are four native plants that shine in the winter:

The first is Redtwig (Red Osier) Dogwood (Cornus sericea).  Plant this one where you can see the red branches stand out against the snow (there is also a yellowtwig dogwood, which can make a nice companion).  Maintain a regular pruning program to remove the older branches, since they tend to lose their brilliant coloration with age.  This plant does not limit its charms to the winter – it has sprays of white flowers in the spring, white berries that birds like in the later summer, and a nice red fall color.  At lower elevations, it prefers a little extra water.

Redtwig dogwood (and its companion, the yellowtwig dogwood) - photo courtesy Iowa State Extension

  Next is Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamna/Ericameria spp).  This shrub is variable in height and in foliage color, but the winter seedheads look wonderful in slanting winter light.  This shrub is also a magnet for butterflies when it blooms in the late summer to early fall.

Rabbitbrush's seed heads glow in late winter light
Lower down to the ground, and best appreciated when there is no snow cover, we have creeping Mahonia (Mahonia repens) and Sulfur flower (Eriogonum umbellatum). 

Creeping Mahonia is a subshrub with holly-like leaves that turn a burnished red in the winter (and admittedly, sometimes winter burn if in full sun).  The leaves can be used for holiday decorations in place of holly, which does not do as well in Colorado.  In the spring, it bursts with fragrant yellow flowers that attract pollinators, and then later in the season, it produces edible (but not all that tasty) blue berries.
Creeping mahonia's leaves turn a burnished red all winter

Sulphur flower is a mat-forming perennial that is very drought tolerant and makes a great ground cover. In the winter, the leaves turn a russet red.  Bonus blooms of yellow-green (or dare I say, sulfur-colored?) flowers attract pollinators in the spring.
The reddish leaves of Sulphur flower warm the winter

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