5 shrubs for winter interest

by Caroline Brown

Winterberry holly ‘red sprite,” image courtesy of University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, Kent County

It feels like spring’s on its way, at least in central North Carolina. But I know a lot of folks are still buried in snow. For you, spring must seem far away. If you’re still dealing with winter and feel there’s no end in sight, this list is for you: 5 shrubs that add winter interest to your garden.

Creating a garden with winter interest  means more than just adding evergreens. Winter’s the time to enjoy unique textures and shapes, and tree parts that are often hidden in spring and summer, such as  berries and bark. Here are some of my favorite shrubs for winter interest–all of them are native to North America except witch hazel.


It wouldn’t be December without holly, and there are so many members of the holly (Ilex) family that it’s nearly impossible to pick one. So I’ll pick two classics, I. opaca (American holly) and I. verticillata (winterberry holly).

Winterberry holly is a deciduous holly that generally does well in moist to wet soils and in bright to partial sun. Use its bountiful berries for wreaths and other holiday decorations, or better yet, leave them for the wildlife to enjoy.  You’ll have to buy two if you want berries–only the female produces berries but she needs a male for pollination. One male can pollinate several female shrubs. (There’s a joke or snarky comment begging to be made here but I’m going to pass, LOL.) A good combination to try is the ‘Red Sprite’ (female) and ‘Jim Dandy’ (male) couple, which are compact versions that mature at 3-5 feet. Other high performing varieties are ‘Wintersparkle’ and ‘Winter Red,’ which can  both pollinated by the male ‘Apollo.’

American holly

American holly is the classic evergreen holly, low-growing with red berries well-loved by birds and squirrels. It has small, June-blooming white flowers; and glossy evergreen leaves with short spines. You may think of it as a tree, but there are also many shrub-sized dwarf and compact forms, including ‘Clarendon,’ which matures to 8 feet, and ‘Maryland Dwarf,”  which can grow between 3 and 10 feet. Like winterberry holly, you need both male and female plants to get berries; a good male pollinator is ‘Jersey Knight.’

Arrowwood viburnum, image courtesy of Powell Gardens, Kansas City

Moving from red berries to blue, we have Viburnum dentatum (arrowwood viburnum). It’s a large, deciduous shrub with clusters of white flowers and coarsely toothed leaves (hence dentatum) and it  can grow as tall as 15 feet. These berries will appear in fall and might not make it through winter because birds love them. ‘Blue Muffin’ is a dwarf variety with bright blue berries; also look for ‘Perle Bleu’ and ‘Northern Burgundy.’

Red twig dogwood, courtesy of Fine Gardening / The Taunton Press

If berries aren’t your thing, how about stems? Cornus stolonifera (red twig dogwood) goes by many names, including C. sericea and red osier dogwood. Its stems are green in the spring and summer, turning dark red in the fall and finally, a showy bright red in the winter. A popular variety is ‘Cardinal.’

Witch hazel, image courtesy of Wikipedia user Daderot

Last on my list of 5 but certainly not least is Hamamelis spp., witch hazels. Witch hazels are small trees or large shrubs that are some of the earliest garden bloomers. They have a loose open structure and gray-green deciduous leaves, but what’s important about them is that they bloom between January and March. So if you’re the kind of person that constantly scans the ground for the first sign of crocus or skunk cabbage, witch hazel might be for you.

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