Developing interest in the landscape throughout the year is an objective for most gardeners. Selecting plants that have attractive characteristics during all four seasons helps gardeners reach their goal of a well-planned landscape. Some plants have several attributes that exhibit ornamental qualities during each season of the year. While attractive flowers may be the showiest characteristic, persistent ornamental fruit may extend the display into winter, while a distinct growth habit or form will be attractive when the plant is not in bloom or bearing fruit. Plants that bloom when other plants are not in blossom deserve special consideration.
Foliage can provide varying shades of green or distinct contrast with yellow, red, or purple leaves. A blaze of autumn foliage color is a grand finale before the plant's more subtle winter characteristics are revealed. Persistent fruit that is held into winter is attractive and may attract wildlife. Patterned or textured bark is more evident when leaves have fallen and contrast nicely to a snowy background. Bold or unusual plant structure and form also are more evident after leaves drop in autumn.
Not all the plants listed have all these features, but each retains at least one outstanding ornamental characteristic all year. Planning will result in combinations of plants that complement each other throughout the year. An ever-changing, always interesting landscape is the result. All plants listed are hardy to Zone 5 (USDA); however, some may need protection if exposed to harsh winter conditions.
For additional information on these plants, see Michael A. Dirr's Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.
Figure 1. The peeling bark of a paperbark maple, Acer griseum.
(30 feet or taller at maturity)
Acer x campestre--hedge maple; 30 feet in height with an equal spread. Dense habit with medium texture. Dark green foliage turns yellow in autumn. Bark is lightly ridged and furrowed, somewhat corky. Grows in any soil, but does better in rich, well-drained soil. Tolerant of dry, compacted soil. Grows in sun or light shade.
Acer x freemanii (Acer rubrum)--Freeman maple; 40 to 60 feet in height with a broad columnar habit. Cultivars: ' Autumn Blaze,' ' Autumn Fantasy,' ' Celebration,' ' Lee's Red,' ' Marmo,' ' Morgan,' and ' Scarlet Sentinel' have good fall color.
Acer platanoides--Norway maple; 40 to 50 feet in height with a spread equal to or slightly less than height. Flowers are effective in spring before dark green leaves open. Fall color is yellow, turning late in the season. Terminal buds are greenish maroon to maroon. Bark has an interesting furrowed texture. Cultivars: ' Crimson King' has wine colored foliage in summer. Adaptable to many soil types. Tolerates pollution and hot, dry conditions.
Acer rubrum--red maple; 40 to 60 feet in height with spread equal to or less than height. Bark is dark gray and rough, scaly, or ridged with age. Cultivars have an excellent red to orange autumn color; ' Autumn Flame,' ' Embers,' and ' Red Sunset.' Requires acidic soil and needs moisture.
Cladrastis lutea--yellowwood; 30 to 50 feet in height with a spread of 40 to 55 feet. Low-branching and broad crown with bright green leaves that turn yellow to gold in autumn. White, wisteria-like flowers give an excellent display every 2 to 3 years. Seed pods are decorative after leaves fall. Grow in well-drained soil in full sun. Pruning usually required to improve the tree's structure.
Fagus sylvatica--European beech; 50 to 60 feet in height with a spread of 35 to 45 feet. Many fine forms and cultivars. They include upright, weeping, and dwarf selections. All have smooth gray bark. There are many leaf colors and shape variations. ' Roseo-marginata' and ' Riversii' are particularly popular. Grow in moist, well-drained, acidic soil in full sun to light shade.
Gymnocladus dioicus--Kentucky coffeetree, 60 to 75 feet in height with a spread of 40 to 50 feet. Bold, picturesque form is this tree's most imposing characteristic. Rough, scaly, gray to dark brown bark and attractive pods add to interest during winter. Unfolding leaves have a pinkish to purple tinge gradually turning a dark green in summer. Flowers are greenish-white and female flowers have the aroma of roses.
Halesia carolina--Carolina silverbell, 30 to 40 feet in height with a spread of 20 to 35 feet, often smaller with a spreading habit. White flowers appear in April and May before the leaves. Dark green leaves turn yellow and fall very early in autumn. Dry, winged fruits are effective from September to late autumn. Multicolored, ridged and furrowed bark is interesting during winter. Requires acid soil.
Liquidambar styraciflua--sweetgum, 60 to 75 feet in height with a spread of 40 to 50 feet. This tree is neatly pyramidal in form, broadening as it ages. Its bark becomes corky beginning with young branches. The leaves are star-shaped with excellent red and orange autumn color. ' Gold Dust' has leaves speckled with yellow.
Nyssa sylvatica--black tupelo, black gum, or sour gum, 30 to 50 feet in height with a spread of 20 to 30 feet. Pyramidal when young, becoming more oval when mature. Bark is almost black and is thick with a very blocky appearance. Exhibits one of the best, bright red autumn colors. Plant in a well-drained, acidic soil.
Oxydendrum arboreum--sourwood, 30 feet in height with a spread of 20 feet. Grows slowly with a pyramidal form with rounded top and drooping branches. Bark is dark brown and deeply furrowed, giving a checkered appearance. Leaves are deep green in summer becoming brilliant yellow, red, and purple in autumn. White, fragrant, drooping clusters of flowers bloom in early summer. Requires a well-drained, acidic soil with high organic content.
Phellodendron amurense--amur corktree, 30 to 45 feet in height with a spread of 15 to 20 feet. Horizontally spreading branches create interesting shape. Bark is heavy and corky. Deep green leaves turn yellow to bronze in fall.
Pyrus calleryana--callery pear, 30 to 50 feet in height with a spread of 20 to 35 feet. Showy white flowers cover tree in spring. Shiny, dark green leaves of summer turn yellowish orange to reddish purple in fall. ' Aristocrat' has a broad-pyramidal outline. ' Capital,' ' Chanticleer,' ' Cleveland Select,' and ' Stonehill' have a compact, upright-pyramidal habit.
Quercus macrocarpa--burr oak, 70 to 80 feet in height with an equal spread. Heavy in texture, with coarse bark, this is one of many worthwhile oaks. Fringed nuts are ornamental. Other oaks to consider include Q. bicolor (swamp white oak), Q. coccinea (scarlet oak), Q. imbricaria (shingle or laurel oak), Q. robur (English oak) and Q. shumardii (Shumard oak).
Stewartia pseudocamellia--Japanese stewartia, 20 to 40 feet in height with an equal or smaller spread. Attractive camellia-like flowers appear in late summer and continue until frost. Dark green leaves turn vibrant red and orange in autumn. The exfoliating bark creates a beautiful pattern of white, beige and dark brown. A truly spectacular tree for the protected site. Soil should be moist and acidic with a high organic content.
Ulmus parvifolia--Chinese or lacebark elm, 40 to 50 feet in height with an equal spread. Resistant to Dutch elm disease, it grows strongly into a graceful, rounded tree. The bark exfoliates becoming mottled combinations of gray, green, orange and brown. The dark green leaves turn yellow to purple in fall. A tough and durable tree.
Figure 2. The buds of a saucer magnolia, Magnolia x soulangiana, glistening in the winter sun.
(8 to 30 feet at maturity)
Acer griseum--paperbark maple, 20 to 25 feet in height with a spread 10 to 20 feet. In addition to papery bark texture, the form of this tree makes it an outstanding addition to any landscape. The cinnamon brown bark exfoliates on young to intermediate aged trees, although this trait decreases as the tree matures. The autumn foliage is bronze to brilliant red.
Acer japonicum--fullmoon maple, 20 to 25 feet in height with an equal to slightly larger spread. Very similar to Japanese maple, the fullmoon maple has a more rounded palmate leaf. ' Aconitifolium' has brilliant red fall foliage. Zone 5 to 7.
Acer palmatum--Japanese maple, 8 to 25 feet in height with an equal to slightly larger spread. Mature height varies with cultivars. Hundreds of cultivars are available that vary in leaf form, texture, variegation, and seasonal color. ' Bloodgood' has deep purple-red foliage. ' Burgundy Lace' does not hold the red color as well. Of the forms with highly dissected leaves, ' Crimson Queen,' ' Ever Red,' ' Garnet,' ' Red Select,' ' Shidare,' and ' Tamukeyama' are recommended.
Amelanchier arborea--downy serviceberry, Juneberry, or shadbush, 15 to 25 feet in height. This shrubby tree features white blossoms early in spring. The dark green leaves become orange to red in autumn. Smooth bark with narrow fissures becomes ridged and furrowed with age. The fine, elegant texture is attractive even in winter. Base selection of cultivar on height, growth habit, fruit size, and fall color. A. x grandiflora is also recommended.
Chionanthus virginicus--fringe tree, 15 to 25 feet in height with an equal spread. The shape of this tree is variable, but generally spreading and open. Multiple stems are common. Flowers are very showy and similar to the Japanese tree lilac. Fruit forms only on female trees and looks like loose clusters of grapes. Autumn color is yellowish and variable. The bark becomes ridged and heavy as the tree matures.
Cornus kousa--Kousa or Chinese dogwood, 20 to 25 feet in height with an equal spread. Mature specimens have horizontal branching. Textured, exfoliating bark is attractive in winter. The floral bracts appear later than those of the native dogwood and the fruit is larger and showier than in Cornus florida. This tree or multistemmed shrub is borer and disease resistant. Dark green leaves turn reddish-purple to scarlet in fall and are effective for several weeks. Zone 5 to 8.
Cornus mas--cornelian cherry, 20 to 25 feet in height with a spread of 15 to 20 feet. Small yellow flowers open in very early spring before the leaves appear. This is a multistemmed shrub or small tree with a rounded form. The exfoliating bark varies from gray-brown to rich-brown and is attractive all year. Fall foliage color is minimal. Fruit is cherry-like and drops in late summer.
Crataegus phaenopyrum--Washington hawthorn, 20 to 30 feet in height with a spread of 20 to 25 feet. This rounded tree is dense and thorny. The white flowers in spring and glossy red fruits in autumn, persisting into winter are very showy. Foliage is lustrous green in summer, turning orange to scarlet or purple in autumn. For excellent fruit, fewer thorns and a slightly larger tree, consider C. viridis ' Winter King.'
Magnolia stellata--star magnolia, 15 to 20 feet in height with a spread of 10 to 15 feet. Attractive white to gray bark is best appreciated against a dark background. White, fragrant flowers open in early spring and are often damaged by late freezes and wind. ' Royal Star' blooms slightly later than the species and other cultivars. Dark green leaves turn yellow to bronze in autumn. Grows better in acidic soil.
Malus hybrids--crabapples, 12 to 25 feet in height with an equal or lesser spread. Very showy spring flowers are followed by colorful fall fruit. Some cultivars have persistent fruit. There are many cultivars and selection should be based on flower, foliage, fruit, habit, and disease-resistance characteristics.
Parrotia persica--Persian parrotia, 20 to 40 feet in height with a spread of 15 to 30 feet. This is a foliage tree, with leaves unfolding as a reddish-purple, turning to a lustrous green and then finishing in fall as brilliant yellow to orange to scarlet. With age, the bark becomes exfoliating, revealing an array of gray, green, white, and brown. The petalless flowers appear before the foliage and the crimson stamens are curiously attractive.
Styrax japonica--Japanese styrax or snowbell, 20 to 30 feet in height and an equal or greater spread. The white, bell-shaped flowers are beautiful and showy May to June. The foliage turns yellow to reddish in fall and is held on the tree late in the season. This low-branched tree is finely textured and has a horizontal structure that is distinctive in winter. The bark is grayish brown and smooth with irregular, interlacing fissures of cinnamon brown. Hardy to Zone 5, this tree should be grown in a protected, east-facing exposure. Plant in a well-drained, moist, acidic soil.
Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum--doublefile viburnum, 8 to 10 feet in height with an equal or slightly greater spread. Horizontal branching structure produces a strong effect, especially in front of a brick wall. The leaves are nicely textured and turn reddish purple in fall. Very showy white flowers appear in May. The fruit, which is usually eaten by birds, is bright red changing to black. It is effective in July and August. Good cultivars include ' Shasta' and ' Mariesii.' Zone 5 to 8. Spring planting recommended.
(under 8 feet at maturity)
Berberis thunbergii--Japanese barberry, 3 to 6 feet in height with a spread of 4 to 7 feet. This densely branched, rounded shrub is one of the first to leaf out in the spring. Foliage is bright green turning orange, scarlet, and reddish purple in autumn. The foliage tends to hide the small yellow flowers, but the bright red berries are showy beginning in October and continuing into winter. Cultivars to consider are ' Aurea' and ' Kobold.' Recommended purple foliage cultivars include atropurpurea ' Crimson Pygmy' and ' Rose Glow.' Berberis koreana, Korean barberry is similar and also recommended.
Cotoneaster apiculatus--cranberry cotoneaster, 3 feet in height by 3 to 6 feet spread. Stiff, herringbone pattern of branching is interesting all year. Glossy green leaves turn a bronzy-red to purple in fall. The small, pink flowers are attractive at a close range. The cranberry-red fruit provide an excellent showing in late fall through winter.
Fothergilla gardenii--dwarf fothergilla, 2 to 5 feet in height with a similar spread. The white, fragrant, bottlebrush-like flowers appear in early spring before the foliage. Leaves are dark green to blue-green, turning yellow, orange to scarlet in autumn, holding color late into the season. The slender, zig-zagging stems forming a dense colony are interesting in winter. Plant in partial shade in a well-drained, acidic soil with high organic content.
Hydrangea quercifolia--oakleaf hydrangea, 4 to 6 feet in height with an equal spread. This rather coarse shrub provides an excellent contrast in the landscape. The foliage is a deep green in summer turning to red, orangish brown, and purple in autumn. The flowers open white in late June and age to purple-pink and finally brown. The bark of mature plants is cinnamon-brown and exfoliates.
Ilex verticillata--winterberry or Michigan holly, 6 to 10 feet in height with an equal spread. Slender stems with dense branching make this a fine natural screen. Leaves are a deep green in summer but no significant fall color. The fruit is bright red and ripens in late August, persisting into January. ' Sparkleberry' is a choice hybrid cultivar due to excellent fruit color. As with other hollies, both sexes are needed to get berries on the female plants. Plant in moist, acidic soil with a high organic content.
Rhus aromatica--fragrant sumac, 2 to 6 feet in height with a spread of 6 to 10 feet. A low, irregular, spreading shrub with a medium texture. Ordinary green leaves turn orange, red to reddish-purple in autumn. The yellowish flowers yield fuzzy, red-orange fruit in autumn, persisting into winter. ' Gro-low' is a recommended low-growing cultivar. Adaptable regarding soil texture, it grows best in acidic soil. Grows in full sun to partial shade.
Viburnum opulus ' compactum'--dwarf European cranberrybush viburnum; 2 to 4 feet in height with a slightly greater spread. This upright, spreading, multistemmed shrub forms a rounded mound. The glossy, dark green leaves turn yellow-red to reddish-purple in autumn. Showy white flowers appear in May followed by berry-like fruits in September. The dwarf cultivars do not fruit well. This plant is very adaptable to a variety of soils and grows in full sun to light shade.
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