Perennials for Winter Interest

A photo of New England Aster snow-covered seed heads.

Although this isn’t the time of year for planting perennials, it sure is the perfect time to assess your winter garden.

By Barbara Perry Lawton

[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener Magazine, January/February 2012]
A photo of New England Aster snow-covered seed heads.

Symphiotrichum novae-angliae, New England Aster, captures snow in its spent seed heads, creating winter jewels. Photo copyright R. Weaver, 2012

Although this isn’t the time of year for planting perennials, it sure is the perfect time to assess your winter garden. In the last issue we suggested trees and shrubs that will provide design interest and eye appeal in gardens during the cold season. Now let’s look at a few perennials that will add some special interest to the winter garden. First of all, you might want to take a stroll some warm winter day through the Missouri Botanical Garden. Make some notes as to what perennials interest you during the cold winter months.

Winter Interest in Perennials

A perennial with winter interest must have persistent foliage and may have unusual color, particularly interesting growth pattern or texture that is unusual or colorful. Seeds and seedpods often offer unusual and attractive characteristics to the winter scene.

Some perennials are large enough and sturdy enough to hold winter’s snowfalls, which makes for added interest and beauty. Perennials with good value for winter gardens must have strong structure in order to withstand the rigors of biting winds and hard freezes.

Perennial Grasses for Winter Interest

These clump-forming grasses are perhaps the royal family of winter perennials. The ornamental grasses include many species that are winners in the winter garden.

Grasses in the genus Miscanthus have feathery seed heads that rise above persistent

a picture of grasses in a winter garden

photo copyright R. Weaver, 2012.

foliage. Miscanthus species come in all sizes up to the 12-foot height of Miscanthus floridus. The genus Pennisetum offers grasses with squirrel-tail seed heads of the palest tan rising above thick tough foliage that is graceful and sways with the lightest breeze. Blue fescue (Festuca glaucus) is a short (less than a foot tall) grass that is of the most attractive blue foliage. It is used far less than it should be, mixing well with flowering annuals and perennials in planters as well as borders.

My favorite of all the ornamental grasses is prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) a medium sized native about 15 inches tall. During the growing season, the dense clump looks ever so much like a glossy green Afro. Fading through orange to a pale copper-tan in winter, the foliage is topped by a halo of feathery seed heads held high above the foliage. A bonus is that the seed heads are fragrant. Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) grasses also are natives with strong vertical profiles that serve the winter garden well.

More Perennials for Winter Interest

A knowledgeable gardening friend said, “Other than ornamental grasses, what perennials are there with winter interest.” While it is true that these grasses stand out during the cold season there are many perennials that deserve prominent places in winter gardens. A number of these perennials offer winter interest in form, persistence and color.

Christmas fern  (Polystichum acrostichoides), a handsome star of the shady garden has handsome ferny foliage that persists until late winter when it dies back and is replaced by new spring growth. Yucca (Yucca spp.), succulent plants of hot dry climates, have sword-like foliage that persists throughout winter. It also has large spikes of flowers that ripen to seed heads with bold design and lasting qualities. Many of the one- to two-foot, fall-blooming sedums (Sedum spp.) have perennial foliage, green to red-green, and disc-like flower heads that are distinctively ornamental. Helleborus is another genus with many species from which to choose. Mid-winter flowers and the great foliage of the hellebores are awesome in the late-winter garden.

Low-growing perennials with evergreen foliage include dianthus, euonymus, English ivy, evergreen candytuft, pachysandra, creeping phlox and liriope. Some of these are blessed with flowers that give them added seasons of garden interest.

A Few Final Words

Plant containerized plants any time you can work the soil. Just be sure that they have enough soil moisture for them to thrive and become acclimated to new sites.

Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO.