69.6 ° F
Full Weather
Sponsored By:

Color in the Winter Garden

Sponsored by:

Unlike other seasons with great swaths of riotous flower color, winter hues are more subtle, often found in berries, bark, foliage, seedpods and garden ornaments. Here are some of my favorite trees, shrubs and ornamental grasses to provide colorful impact.

Berries In addition to providing winter color, berries are welcome food for the birds.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), native to this area, is an evergreen shrub or small tree with clumps of showy red or orange berries. Chinese pistache is an adaptable tree with yellow, red or orange fall foliage and wispy sprays of tiny red berries that ripen to blue-black. Nandina (heavenly bamboo) is a shrub that comes in many sizes and shapes with red or orange berries for winter color.

Not all berries are red. The most eye-catching are the intensely violet berries that become visible on Callicarpa (beautyberry) when it loses its leaves. Growing to five feet tall and wide, it blooms and fruits on the current season’s growth. Some barberries, in addition to red or orange, have blue berries borne on last year’s growth. Either deciduous or evergreen, barberries grow in many different sizes from 18 inches to 10 feet tall. Look carefully at the plant description to choose the “right plant for the right place.” Those with the showiest foliage (purple, yellow, red, etc.) are usually deciduous.

Foliage. Although elevation and variable winter severity make it difficult to guarantee colorful foliage, some plants are reasonably reliable. Nandina domestica has several varieties ranging to six feet tall with foliage that turns red when the weather gets cold. Most varieties appreciate some afternoon shade, have berries and feathery foliage and can acclimate to become drought tolerant.

Mahonia or Berberis (Oregon grape) is a native that’s great for winter color. This evergreen shrub comes in three sizes; three to seven feet tall, one to three feet tall, and a groundcover one to two feet tall. Creeping Mahonia (Berberis aquifolium var. repans), the groundcover, turns deep red in winter with leaves that look like holly. The larger Mahonias turn dark purple in winter. These hardy, slow-growing plants prefer some shade in lower elevations.

Grasses. Ornamental grasses add movement, texture and quiet color. The California State Grass, purple needle grass (Nasella pulchra), is green until it starts blooming in late winter. It’s drought tolerant, grows to about three feet tall, goes dormant in summer and prefers full sun. Other grasses that grow well in the Mother Lode include deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and those from the Miscanthus and Carex species.

Bark.  In winter, nothing is more stunning than the red branches of the native red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea). This deciduous shrub quickly grows to 15 feet in moist locations.

Older, established crape myrtles also produce peeling, colorful bark. And the mahogany bark of manzanitas, often overlooked in summer, takes on special beauty in the low winter sun.

Garden structures, furniture, ornaments or empty glazed pots can provide a spot of color where needed. Several cobalt blue pots arranged against a bare, gray wall create a dramatic result.

Spending time in the garden year-round provides new insights, observations, learning and planning. Look for emerging buds, colorful stems, or unique bark. Take note of plants with berries, seedpods and unusual forms. Many of them make their most significant garden contributions in winter. Be there to see it.


Maryls Bell is a University of California Cooperative Extension Honorary Master Gardener of Tuolumne County who likes to garden year-round.