by BRIAN MINTER
December 2, 2007
In terms of Christmas décor, there is a trend back to things more natural. Artificial trees and wreaths have given way to the fragrance and natural beauty of fresh trees and greens, and our gardens can be a primary source of both indoor and outdoor Christmas colour.
Interesting tree stems have some of the greatest appeal and certainly last the longest. The willow family has led the way with so many new, interesting branch forms. Salix ‘Tortuosa’ (zone 4), I often joke, is a tree worth far more dead than alive because of its incredibly valuable twisted, curly stems. The golden and red forms of this tree are brilliant in Christmas arrangements, wreaths and even by themselves. The flat, twisted stems of Salix ‘Sekka’ (zone 4) are even more unique because the dark stems are often dotted with tiny catkins.
The dogwood family has long been one of my favourite sources of both outdoor and indoor colour. The old standby red and yellow twig dogwoods, Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ and C. stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’ (both zone 2), still have the most intense winter colour, especially after a few frosts. Cornus alba ‘Midwinter Fire’ (zone 3) continues the red and yellow for an amazing blaze of colour. ‘Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick’ or Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (zone 4) is perhaps the most well known of the curly stemmed plants, and its cut winter stems create brilliant focal points, especially when the catkins begin to trail. In the garden or in Christmas arrangements, all of these plants are in the ‘must have’ category.
Berries celebrate the winter season by brighten our gardens and home décor. Red is still the traditional winter and Christmas colour, and the best red is still found with deciduous hollies. Ilex verticillata (zone 4), an eastern U.S. native, is the most ‘wow’ coloured berry you can find in the landscape. If you wish to grow your own, you will need a male pollinator for the female varieties, although many growers are now planting both in the same container. Be sure to cut only half the stems in any given year as they produce best on old wood. If you love birds, you’ll be in your glory because of all the great berries out there, Ilex verticillata is their first choice.
The colours hot pink and white are also quite spectacular in winter as they show off well in dull weather. Snowberries (symphoricarpos), particularly ‘Amethyst’ and ‘Marleen’, are simply brilliant in winter with their hot pink winter fruits. Symphoricarpos ‘White Hedge’ and the old fashioned S. albus (zone 2) are among the best whites. They all tolerate shade and drought very well, and as a matter of fact, they berry up better in those conditions.
Pyracanthas (zone 5), cotoneasters (zone 5), female skimmia (zone 6), pernettya (zone 7), Hansa roses (zone 3), callicarpa (zone 5) and many other plants have wonderful winter berries. The very hardy crabapple, Malus ‘Red Jewel’ (zone 4) has stunning red berries all winter long – berries that the birds do not eat. Another novelty, M. ‘Red Sentinel’ has huge (2 cm), hard red fruits. They are both ‘must have’ additions to your winter garden.
At Christmas time, it’s often about fragrant foliage. The stately Noble fir, soft flowing white pine and even perfumed cedar branches are among the finest multiple use greens. These trees are often too big, however, to fit into most smaller space gardens. A comparable replacement for Noble fir in our gardens is Abies koreana. The needles on this small to mid-size fragrant fir are deep silver on the bottom and black-green on the top with absolutely amazing blue cones decorating each whorl like a ring of candles. It’s a ‘wow’ plant! Pinus parviflora (zone 5) is a terrific white garden pine with graceful soft blue foliage and neat little frosted cones.
To add spark to these beautiful blues and greens, yellow and gold conifers are a must. Thuja occidentalis Rheingold (zone 3) provides a distinct orange while the most beautiful yellows can be found in the Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Aurea’ family (zone 5). The compact golden cedar, Thuja occidentalis ‘Europe Gold’ or ‘Sunkist’ are my two favourite bright gold winter foliage plants. There are dozens of other great conifers with unique foliage and cones. They all need to be pruned, so around Christmas is the best time.
No winter garden would be complete without colourful broadleaved plants. Winter foliage, flower buds and winter flowers always add the finishing to gardens, winter containers or crafts. Euonymus, particularly the bright uprights like E. japonica Aureo-maringata and E. fortunei ‘Silver Queen’ (zone 5), are like beacons of light in the landscape.
Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Scarletta’ (zone 5) is the winter sleeper of all broadleaves. Its brilliant green leaves turn an incredible scarlet that holds through to spring. Its shiny leathery leaves stand up well once cut and are easily used both inside and out.
‘Heavenly Bamboo’, or more correctly, Nandina domestica has richly coloured bronze-red foliage that adds a warm touch to a winter garden. The many new dwarf varieties are even more brilliant.
The pieris family is growing almost exponentially with so many new varieties. The most interesting are the variegated forms. Pieris japonica ‘Flaming Silver‘ (zone 5) has vibrant foliage that sparks up both shady garden areas and winter arrangements. Its dark winter buds add a nice touch as well.
Now is a wonderful time to plant all of these great winter plants. Using their branches and berries in seasonal planters, arrangements, wreaths, swags and specialty baskets will create that ‘wow’ factor, and you will be able to simply cut them fresh from your own garden.