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Best plants for winter foliage

Val Bourne / 12 December 2017 ( 09 February 2021 )

A winter garden can be a bleak place, but choosing plants with rich, colourful and varied winter foliage can help keep things going.

Winter foliage
Winter gardens can be bare and lifeless without some well-chosen winter foliage

It’s really important, when much of the garden is in retreat, to have some fresh foliage to keep it all going and luckily there are plenty of plants with handsome winter foliage.

Some evergreen shrubs will provide solid blocks of colour in different shades from winter-warming rich-green, to sunny green and gold, to cooler cream and green and plummy red.

Ground-hugging plants are even more varied. Some leaves are veined and frosted, others are spotted or liberally splashed and others plain and elegant. Together they form a winter tapestry, warming the gardener’s heart and sheltering wildlife.

They all have their niches and every garden, however small, provides a series of different conditions. There may be damp corners where the sun rarely falls, or a bright hotspot, or dry shade close to evergreens. And there’s always an opportunity for a container or two and these are good value. The plants last throughout winter, hardly changing and needing little maintenance and afterwards they can be planted in the borders.

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Periwinkle (Vinca major), soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum), English ivy (Hedera helix) and Heuchera
Periwinkle (Vinca major), soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum), English ivy (Hedera helix) and Heuchera are good winter ground cover for dappled shade.

Winter foliage for dappled shade

Ground cover

If you have deciduous trees and shrubs, once they drop their foliage it allows the low winter sun to slant through the branches. The bare branches cast a magic lantern pattern on the ground and the overhead canopy and root system keeps the soil warmer and drier. 

Many early-flowering plants do well here and some have good winter foliage. Pulmonarias sometimes have attractive foliage and ‘Leopard’ produces brick-red flowers framed by deep-green leaves regularly marked in a squarish dice-shaped solver squares. ‘Trevi Fountain’ has silver spotted narrow leaves and bright-blue flowers. ‘Diana Clare’, my desert-island pulmonaria, combines violet flowers and plain foliage in verdigris green. All three shine in winter.

Find out how to grow pulmonarias

The easily grown soft shield fern, Polystichum setiferum, also enjoys dappled shade and most have rusty-coloured bristles on the wintergreen fronds and these stand out in winter sunshine. Some forms have simple fronds, such as ‘Herrenhausen’, but others like Plumosomultilobum Group have thick mossy fronds.

If it’s a larger area, periwinkle could be used to create leafy cover. The greater periwinkle, Vinca major, sends out runners rather as strawberries do so it can create havoc among anything you value. However in a wilder area it could be allowed to flourish. The green-leaved form, Vinca major, has blue flowers and ‘Variegata’ has cream-edged, green leaves. Both have blue flowers in spring.

There are more forms of the lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) and this spreads by forming a dense mesh of roots that excludes weeds. However it is extremely hard to cull, should you need to. Green-leaved forms include the blue-flowered Vinca minor and white form naked ‘Alba’. 'Argenteovariegata' has blue flowers and green foliage edged in cream-white. ‘Azurea Flore Pleno’ has double pale-blue flowers. These are all spring-flowering. However the green-leaved Vinca difformis ‘Jenny Pym’ produces its rounded pink and white flowers in autumn and winter. These taller periwinkles are good against a shady wall.

Find out how to grow periwinkles

English Ivies (Hedera helix) also add a bolt of leaf in winter and, if you want a moderate a ground cover ivy with rich-green scalloped leaves, ‘Ivalace’ is excellent. Smaller ones, with leaves the size of a thumbnail, include ‘Spetchley' (syn. ‘Minima’) and ‘Duckfoot’. These miniature ivies spread very slowly and can be used in winter containers or as edgings.

If you’re trying to light up a dark corner go for a variegated ivy such as ‘Glacier’ which can creep over the ground or climb. The grey-green leaves are margined in warm white, so this is soft and subtle. ‘Golden Girl’ is brasher, with green leaves edged in yellow and it’s quicker than many to climb or ramble. All of these will do well in shade. However if you plant a golden-leaved ivy, such as ‘Sunrise’, it will need a bright position to keep its yellow colouring. Golden-leaved ivies turn a dull green in shade.

Find out how to grow ivy

Other good ground cover plants for dappled shade include Euphorbia amygdaloides, a wood spurge with beetroot rosettes of foliage followed by lime green flowers. In drier positions bergenias will also thrive, although many need a vast amount of space as their common name of Elephant’s ears suggests. The more-diminutive ‘Overture’ has upright reddish winter foliage and it puts out a lot of pink flowers in a small space.

You can also use heucheras and x heucherellas in dappled shade. These American woodlanders have been hybridised and developed to produce a range of exciting foliage in unusual colours. There are vivid lime-greens, frosted silvers, plums, almost-blacks and greens. They are hardy and their foliage shines in winter light. Terra Nova Nursery, based on Oregon in the United States, have revolutionised this plant.

Plant breeders have also produced a hybrid between heuchera and tiarella called x heucherella. The very new ‘Plum Cascade’ is not only the first purple-leaved heucherella, it also has a trailing habit, so it could be used in a winter basket or pot, in the border, or at it could droop over a low wall. You will have to keep all heucherellas watered if they’re in pots or hanging baskets, because they’re thirstier than heucheras. ‘Redstone Falls’, another with a trailing habit, is a mixture of autumnal apricot-orange and pink. ’Yellowstone Falls’ has Chartreuse-green leaves lightly marked in deep-crimson.

Find out about using ground cover plants for weed control

English holly (Ilex aquifolium), Aucuba japonica, Highclere holly (Ilex x altaclerensis) and Daphne bholua
English holly (Ilex aquifolium), Aucuba japonica, Highclere holly (Ilex x altaclerensis) and Daphne bholua add structure to a dappled garden in winter.

Structure for dappled shade

It’s useful to have some solid blocks of colour above the ground and to know where to grow them. Hollies make perfect understory plants close to mature trees but English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is very prickly so it’s not suitable in areas that have to be weeded. The Latin species name of aqui-folium actually means eagle-sharp leaf. These English hollies do make good specimens in lawns or you can create a hedge, although English holly is slow-growing. Hedges don’t have to be straight and neat, a cloud-cut holly hedge is a delight when frost arrives to rime contour and line. The small-leaved ‘Alaska’ is excellent.

Hollies can also be topiarised into wedding cakes and pyramids, although every time you clip you’re cutting away potential berries. Or they can be left to develop their natural shape which is often pyramidal. Only female varieties berry if there’s male pollen nearby. Excellent ‘berriers’ include the variegated varieties, ‘Argentea Marginata’, ‘Handsworth New Silver’ and ‘Madame Briot’. Otherwise you may have to plant a male such as Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Prince’.

Find out how to grow holly

Highclere hollies (Ilex x altaclerensis) are faster growing with rounder foliage that’s kinder on the hands. These make fine hedges and mopheads and great varieties include the green and gold female ‘Belgica Aurea’ and the brighter female ‘Lawsoniana’. The female ‘Camellifolia is a large-leaved handsome all-green holly.

You could also use variegated shrubs including Aucuba japonica ‘Crotonifolia’ and Eleagnus × submacrophylla ‘Limelight' to cast some sunshine. Aucubas are useful in deep shade and they reach a height of 6ft (2m) quite quickly and then stop and this, with their ability to cope with being cut back, makes them manageable. ‘Limelight’ makes a larger shrub, up to 10ft (3m), and it bears fragrant flowers in November. This will need a sympathetic pruning regime. Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill', all sarcococcas and will all provide rich green leaves and winter flowers in dappled shade.

At lower level, the evergreen Euonymus fortune is good in woodland, a bright border or in a tub because it offers different combinations of colour. ‘Emerald 'n' Gold’ is a high-glow yellow colour-washed in green. 'Emerald Gaiety' as white-edged sage-green leaves and this is often trained on a wall via wires. Skimmias are smaller evergreens that stay small and compact and some, like the ivory-white ‘Kew Green’, have comical heads of buds that open into flowers. Others berry.

Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola), Mahonia x media, Lauristinus (Viburnum tinus) and barrenwort (Epimedium perralderianum)
Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola), Mahonia x media, Lauristinus (Viburnum tinus) and barrenwort (Epimedium perralderianum) provide winter interest in a dark, shady garden.

Deep shade

Deep shade is usually dry, but certain plants will thrive although they do need extra care to become established when the ground is very dry. Plant them small and water them regularly during their first growing season.

Daphne laureola, also known as the spurge laurel, has glossy green rosettes of foliage topped by apple-green flowers in late winter. They’re vaguely fragrant. Lauristinus, or Viburnum tinus , isn’t scented but the evergreen foliage is attractive and the pink and white dainty flowers appear in winter.

Mahonia x media, an arching somewhat prickly shrub with long racemes of fragrant moonlight-yellow flowers in November, is also good in shade. It seems to tolerate dry shade.

At ground level epimediums, or barrenworts, found naturally in countries close to the Mediterranean Sea are good in dry shade. However they must not be confused with neweer introductions from China. These these need moist fertile soil. 

Barrenworts that will cope have wiry stems, heart-shaped foliage and May flowers in yellow or cream and yellow. Epimedium perralderianum, from Algeria, has green glossy foliage and small yellow flowers. A hybrid between this and E. pinnata was found at RHS Wisley, E. x perralchicum, has heart-shaped foliage and larger yellow flowers. You could also try E. x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’ a daintier looking pale-yellow with a tough constitution.

Find out how to design and plan a woodland garden

Box and yew winter foliage
Box (Buxus sempervirens) and yew (Taxus baccata) provide good winter foliage in a sunny garden with good soil.

Bright light and with good soil

The classic evergreens in any British garden are yew (Taxus baccata) and box (Buxus sempervirens). Both will grow well on most soils as long as the ground doesn’t get too waterlogged in winter. Both can be cut once a year. Box can be clipped into intricate shapes, or left to form a billowing cloud-like bush. In either case it should be fed with buxus food to keep the foliage green and glossy. If you’ve a dry garden the variegated box, ‘Elegantissima’, shimmers in sunlight.

Yew is used for larger topiary and hedging. It’s faster growing than you think and it’s possible to get a reasonable hedge within eight years if you start off by planting pot-grown, foot-high yew plants into enriched soil. Feed your hedge every four weeks, between April and August, for its first few years. Use a a nitrogen-rich plant food and just trim the sides to make it bushier. When your hedge gets to within a foot of your desired height, cut the tops off and then let it bush out.

Find out about how to use evergreen plants to liven up a winter garden

California lilac (Ceonothus), Hebe, scorpion vetch (Coronilla coronata) and Ophiopogon planiscapus
California lilac (Ceonothus), Hebe, scorpion vetch (Coronilla coronata) and Ophiopogon planiscapus provide winter foliage in a sunny, sheltered garden.

Full sun and shelter

Lots of plants with a Mediterranean provenance can shine in winter if they’re clipped and tidied into domes and roundel by late-summer. 

Many have silvered aromatic foliage and these include August-flowering lavendins such as Lavandula x intermedia ‘Alba’ and cotton lavender, Santolina pinnata subsp. neopolitana. The latter is a cotton lavender with custard-cream coloured flowers. 

You can also use clip hebes into shapes in mid-summer, although it will stop them flowering. They can’t be clipped after the end of August because they’re slightly tender. Silver-leaved hebes, such as Hebe pimeleoides ‘Quicksilver’ could be used with the strappy black grass-like plant Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’. Both would thrive in a warmth and sun. The new Hebe ‘Heartbreaker’ has green-edged cream laves that colour up to deep-pink during winter.

A sunny south-facing wall could be used as a backdrop for Ceonothus ‘Concha’, a tall evergreen with small deep-green leaves followed by bright-blue flowers. Often called the California lilac, this also has interesting red-flushed buds for weeks before it flowers. 

This shrub is a self-supporting but you’ll need wires and a south-facing wall for Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’. It produced clusters of pale-yellow pea flowers in late-winter. Or you could plant a winter clematis, C. cirrhosa, because this will produce red-dappled, apple-green bells in midwinter. Azara microphylla, a wall shrub, packs a vanilla scent from tint yellow flowers, but the small leaflets make this Chilean plant look like cotoneaster.

These touches of colour keep a garden going.

Using architectural evergreens for a beautiful winter garden

The single biggest improvement you can make is to plant more rich-green evergreens with high-gloss leaves. These shine out like a beacon in winter light and radiate warmth just when we gardeners need it most. You can use them informally by planting evergreen shrubs, or you can topiarise yew and box. Tightly-clipped evergreens, such as yew and box, will add formal structure as well as warmth. They look particularly stylish in town gardens.

Box (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) can be clipped into any shape due to its small leaves. Spirals, cones, balls and squares are more traditional. But I have a handsome cockerel and a hen! The traditional time to clip box is early June, after the frosts have ceased. If the shape needs more honing, give it a second light trim in late August. Yew is clipped in August and is a much larger plant suitable for hedges or larger single specimens.

Both are best grown in the ground and both will benefit from a controlled release fertiliser used in the growing season - between April and September. You can containerise box but it will need regular watering and a fortnightly nitrogen-rich feed to keep the foliage a rich green.

Some evergreens will also provide winter fragrant flower as well as good leaf and the best of all is Sarcococca confusa. This oriental, small shrub has rich-green pointed leaves and ivory white flowers which are little more than collections of stamens. But they belt out a powerful scent which will fragrance a wide area so use it close to gates, doorways and paths. This shrub is also very happy in a container.

There are lots of skimmias that you could use too, but the star performer is Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’ -a small laurel-like shrub which produces sweetly fragrant cream flowers in spring. Skimmias are tremendous garden value, because they produce their buds in the previous summer. ‘Kew Green’ has triangular heads consisting of hundreds of lime-green buds suffused in rhubarb pink. These are every bit as decorative as the flowers and they give a long season of interest before the flowers open. Some female skimmias also berry well and the best is S. japonica ‘Nymans’.

If you need a larger winter-flowering evergreen for the edge of a garden, forms of Viburnum tinus are ideal. They have the added advantage of being able to grow happily in deep shade. Although the clusters of flowers aren’t fragrant the combination of pink bud against white flower is delicately pretty in winter light. ‘Eve Price’ is the most compact and colourful - the dark, almost-red buds frame pink flowers. ‘Gwenllian’ is larger (up to 10 ft or 3 metres) with paler blush-white flowers.

You can also explore hollies, eleagnus, aucubas, choisya, osmanthus and photinia. But opt rich-green leaved varieties rather than the golden variegated ones if you want to get the ‘winter warmer’ effect.

Find out more about looking after a winter garden, including how to choose winter-flowering shrubs for your garden

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