top of page

Plants for Winter Interest

Marjory Blare, Master Gardener

In Minnesota, the winter color palette tends toward white, brown and gray. But we need not think of this landscape as drab or uninteresting. Fill your yard with interesting shrubs and sturdy perennials to enjoy a peacefully pleasing home landscape. Read this article for several plants that liven up a winter landscape.

Plants for Winter Interest

When beautiful white snow blankets everything, it's nice to have plants that provide a contrast to that blanket.  Here are several plants that liven up a winter landscape:


Red or Yellow Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)


These extremely hardy native shrubs add bright red or yellow stems to your yard. They can grow 6-8 feet tall and the same in width. They can take full sun to part-shade. They tolerate wet conditions and are deer-resistant. The yellow twig dogwood is a natural variant of the red. To keep the stems bright, prune out the older stems to stimulate new growth. Other common names for this shrub include: Shoemack, Waxberry Cornel, Red-Dosier Cornel, Red Willow, Red Brush, Red Rood, Harts Rouges, Gutter Tree and Dogberry Tree.  As a bonus the bright twigs can be cut to add a bright vertical element to winter pots!

Mugo pine (Pinus mugo)

This densely-needled conifer provides a medium green note to your yard. Various cultivars range from 2-10 feet tall and 2-15' wide. It is tolerant of many soil types, but doesn't like wet feet. It is salt and pollution tolerant, deer-resistant and requires full sun. You may want to prune some of the taller varieties, which involves cutting the new growth back by half.


False Cypress 'Golden Mops” (Chamaecyparis)

 Golden Mops forms a slightly conical mound of scaly, yellow, thread-like leaves. They grow slowly to 3-5 feet tall by 4-6 feet wide. They need full-sun to part-shade, but look greener in shade. They are drought and salt tolerant and can take some browsing by deer and rabbits. They are not too picky about soil, but don't like wet feet.

Dark Green Spreader Yew (Taxus x media)


This shrub that is a darker green than the Mugo pine. This shrub will easily take light, full-shade. It thrives in all soils as long as they are well-drained. It is deer-resistant. Take note that all parts of it are poisonous. Its red berries are attractive to small children. It can grow up to 10 feet tall and will generally be wider than tall. It doesn't require pruning, but does respond well to it.

American Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis)

 Here is a conifer with an upright columnar habit. The native plant can reach heights of 30', but there are many cultivars such as 'Hetz Midget', that are only 3-4 feet wide by 4-5 feet tall. In hard winters, deer will forage on arborvitae. Other names for arborvitae include northern white-cedar, eastern white-cedar, and swamp-cedar.


There are many other plants that can provide interest: Joe Pye Weed seed heads, tall sedum, seed heads from flowers. Ornamental grasses that provide a creamy, tan color. Look for plants that have interesting shapes, such as Henry Lauder's Walking Stick, with its twisty branches. Then there are interesting barks such as the native small tree, Serviceberry with glossy bark or (taller) river birch with exfoliating bark. Winterberry, hollies, White Baneberry (another native) and some crab-apples all hang onto their fruit into the winter.

 Winter is a great time to plan for next year's winter interest. Research your plants and be sure to get a soil test before planting!

Photo credits: University of Minnesota Extension (1), Marjory Blare (2, 4, 5), Mark Bolin (3)

bottom of page