A bright feature for a winter garden is the southern magnolia tree (Magnolia grandiflora) which has large shiny leaves and a sturdy appearance. Although native to the Southeastern United States, plants have been hardy and thriving in this region for over thirty-five years. The Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia sent me a gift a few years ago of a cultivar known as Edith Bogue. It has been happy in my garden and looks outstanding. As an evergreen tree, it is especially useful as a screen, thereby creating a sense of privacy in your garden. If you need to manage the size or shape of your tree, it will take pruning extremely well. Magnolias arose early in the evolution of plants, literally millions of years ago, before the existence of bees. Thus, this tree adapted to pollination by beetles. Throughout the summer, magnolias produce stunning, large, velvety white flowers which have a refreshing citrus scent.
Bark can be a highlight of the winter garden. Observe the exfoliating bark of our beautiful river birch trees (Betula nigra) and crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia sp.) A lesser known plant with unique bark is the small understory tree or large shrub known as snakebark maple (Acer pensylvanicum). The name snakebark refers to the beautiful whitish, distinctive striations on the greenish bark. In nature, it is found in the rocky forests of Eastern United States and adjacent Canada. In our garden, it must have shade and be planted in a moist, well-drained acidic soil. There is a really cool form of the plant, Acer pensylvanicum `Erythrocladum,’ that is fascinating because the branches turn a glowing salmon red in winter and spring. Unfortunately, this particular type of snakebark is hard to find because it is so difficult to propagate.
One of the best perennials for the winter garden is the hellebore. Certain hellebores are known for poking both leaves and blooms right through a carpet of snow. Since hellebores have become a rage in the horticultural scene, there are many new hybrids available. I have one absolute favorite and it is Helleborus x `Penny’s Pink,’ named for the famous British plantswoman Penelope Hobhouse. The plant is gorgeous throughout the year due to the attractive foliage and lovely flower. The leaves are a mix of pink, silver grey/green in a handsome pattern. Deep pink flowers are long blooming and visually splendid from every angle. These plants grow about 20” tall and wide. They need shade and soil that is rich and moist. I found these plants at a local garden center and have been pleasantly surprised by their performance and striking beauty.
An evergreen ground cover that grows well in winter is the strawberry saxifrage (Saxifraga stolonifera). Its delightful patterned and textured leaves will grace the ground and spread through the shade garden because plantlets form at the stolon tips and grow where they fall, similar to the way strawberries grow. It grows gracefully on rocks and around moist areas but is not really particular about where it grows. Another winter winner is the sacred lily (Rohdea japonica), a superb evergreen from Japan, which grows about 2 feet high with strong strap-shaped leaves. Plants appear robust and happy all winter and often retain their beautiful red fruit nestled in the foliage. Sacred lily tolerates dry shade conditions and is easy to grow. I have one from a rare plant auction that cost a small fortune because of the white variegation that edges the leaves.
If you like smaller delicate beauties, then snow drops (Galanthus sp.) may be the winter blooming plant for you. Snowdrops are often the first little bulbs to emerge with their pendulous white flowers on nodding heads that are bold enough to bloom right through snow. They are only 3 to 6 inches tall so you need to make an effort to notice them in the garden but once they pop up, they will bring a smile to your face as they mark the first sign of spring. I have friends in the plant world who collect many species and varieties of snow drops. One friend even travels to England each year to buy new selections. While I love this plant, his obsession is funny to me. A great source for buying snowdrops and Penny’s Pink hellebore is Carolyn’s Shade Garden, a nursery in Pennsylvania.