The cold and dreary days of winter, though they seem endless in January, especially during a pandemic when we are not getting out as much as we are used to, can be brightened with native plantings. By providing food and shelter for native animals and birds with good selections of native plants, we can brighten up our landscapes and our lives. Seemingly barren native trees, shrubs, and plants can provide us beauty in the landscape as well as wildlife habitat.
Lots of Choices
You might already have some native plants in your garden and want to add to them, or if you have been growing non-natives you can gradually replace them with natives. It is easier to replace non-natives in stages, and there is an abundance of native choices that may be easier to grow and naturally resistant to pests; as an added bonus, native plants tend to require less maintenance. I always look for winter interest when selecting a new native plant, as I want to be able to enjoy my plantings all year long. Here are some of my favorites:
An old native Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) anchors my property, and this species is one of the largest deciduous trees in North America according to the Virginia Department of Forestry. Easy to spot in the winter landscape with mottled white and grey bark, you can see them from afar as a tall sentinel popping up above the canopy. The Sycamore requires lots of room, but I enjoy the welcome shade from its large leaves covering my patio. It is resistant to air pollution and is a great wildlife selection, benefitting birds such as goldfinch, chickadees, and dark-eyed juncos and mammals such as squirrels, muskrat, and beaver.
River Birch (Betula nigra) is also known for its bark, but the bark display is more dramatic than a Sycamore. It grows rapidly where White Birches fail to thrive, and renowned ecologist Douglas Tallamy ranks birches in the Top 5 best woody plants for wildlife. Another great tree choice is a Redbud (Cercis canadensis) which has great limb structure and dangling brown seedpods enjoyed by many birds and small mammals.
Hollies, both deciduous and evergreen, are a stellar native selection. I have a long border of American Holly (Ilex opaca) that I planted when they were about 6 inches tall. Seven years later they tower over me at over 8 feet tall and provide nesting sites for many of my visiting birds. Birds prefer to shelter in sturdy evergreen trees that provide protection from wind and predators, and I frequently find old nests stuck within the branches. The bright red holly berries are very desirable food for birds, and in a winter snow the branches are bright spots of color easily seen from my house about 50 feet away. American Hollies can be pruned to stay at a mature height of around 15 feet, making it a more feasible backyard option than other larger Holly trees.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is one of my favorite native winter interest shrubs for its showy display of bright red berries that remain on the leafless branches for months. Winterberries need both a male and female for good fruit production, and the inconspicuous flowers are flocked to by my honeybees followed by dense clusters of large berries after the leaves disappear. A medium sized shrub from 6 to 10 feet high, it is an adaptable naturalizer and useful for moist sites.
Tag Alder (Alnus serrulata), a multi-stemmed deciduous shrub, has wonderful dangling catkins and attractive cone-like fruits in the winter landscape, and in spring the fresh toothed leaves are attractive. Growing well in a moist location, this is a greatly under-used shrub with high wildlife value.
Perennials & Grasses
The native Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is one of my favorite perennials for winter interest because of the pyramidal seed heads left over from the beautiful reddish-purple flower. Allowing the seed heads to remain for wildlife offers up a winter long smorgasbord of seeds to sustain birds and other small mammals. Both Coneflower, Rudbeckia, and Milkweed seed heads make a great visual show against another native, Pink Muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillari), which also provides seed heads and nesting materials for native birds.
For a great winter interest fern, Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) forms evergreen rosettes of leathery dark green foliage. Preferring moist woodland conditions in partial to full shade, it can be used as a ground cover under shrubs and trees. Easy to spot on the woodland floor in winter, this fern is generally left alone by deer and can form in quite large clumps.
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Claire is a horticulturalist and landscape design consultant. Owner of Claire Jones Landscapes, LLC, Claire’s designed gardens have been featured in print publications like WSJ and Style Magazine. A garden writer at The Garden Diaries, Claire maintains 3 honeybee hives and gardens at her home in Maryland.