Discovering plants with winter interest
On a brisk walk through Frick Park, Phil Gruszka is in his glory pointing out trees and shrubs that are stars of the show for winter interest.
The 65-year-old director of horticulture and forestry for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservatory says he’s not ready to retire, “because I love what I do, that’s what keeps you young.”
He’s spent a lifetime in a variety of landscapes and loves all plants but has a special place in his heart for trees, which add interest to any winter landscape.
“They could live 300 or 400 hundred years,” he says. “These are higher organisms. When it gets cold outside, we run into our house, they have to survive. When it gets hot out and there’s no water, they need to be able to survive. They are far superior to humans genetically.”
Barking up the right tree
Along the trail, he points out statuesque sycamore trees with their light-colored, mottled trunks and limbs making a statement in the forest. “This time of the year when the leaves are off and you’re looking around and seeing grays and browns and you see white, it’s pretty neat, they stand out,” Gruszka says.
Putting on a show under the sycamores are the bright yellow flowers of witch hazel blooming right now.
“The flower buds are swelled, they start blooming in mid-December and will go through February,” Gruszka says.
The small native tree loves growing just above stream beds, but could be grown by home gardeners. Eventually the plant could reach over 20 feet and likes to grow near wet areas, but not in the water itself. They are adaptable too and can grow in full shade or part sun.
“It’s incredible when it snows and those flowers are open, that white background with that yellow flower is phenomenal,” he says.
Gruszka considers sweetgum trees one of the most interesting for winter, even though many gardeners avoid them because of their infamous gum balls. The round seed heads are a little over an inch across and drop from the tree after winter.
“When we plant sweetgum trees we site them where they won’t be a nuisance when the seed pods fall on the ground,” he says.
The avid outdoorsman recognizes what an invaluable resource the tree is for wildlife when the pods mature at the end of winter, dispersing dust-like seeds on the ground.
He remembers once, after a new blanket of snow, “You could see these little birds had walked these patterns eating that seed. At that time of the year, to have that food resource, that’s really valuable.”
Some trees like paperbark maples and river birch have exfoliating bark that makes them spectacular during the winter. The maple has a cinnamon-colored bark and easy to grow. The river birch has beautiful white and brown pealing bark, loves moist soil, but is hardy and adaptable.
Something a little different
Looking for something the neighbors don’t have in their landscape? Try Persian ironwood, he says. They are a tough non-native eventually reaching 30 feet with pretty exfoliating bark and nice yellow and orange colored fall foliage.
Another relatively unknown smaller tree he points out along the trail is bladdernut. It produces clusters of drooping white flowers in early spring, but then comes into its own later in the year.
“It’s native, you really don’t pay much attention to until the winter time,” he says. “Then you see these little brown lanterns hanging from the branches.”
He feels it’s an obligation to share the knowledge of plants he’s accumulated over a life and adds that he gets something special from spreading the word — “Fulfillment, it’s very meaningful work.”
More winter beauties
Shannon Downey always has great suggestions for choosing plants for the landscape off season. As marketing specialist for Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs, she’s studied the plants year round. Her first choice is one of the most popular plants for growing when the snow comes down.
“One of my favorites is red twig dogwoods in the fall when it looses its leaves and exposes its red, or in other cases, yellow stems that shine against the snow,” she says. “And they make great cut branches for you holiday winter decor, which is always a plus.”
‘Arctic Fire’ has classic red stems; ‘Arctic Sun’ has branches that are yellow. These are shorter varieties, reaching only about 4 feet tall when mature.
Winterberry hollies also loose their leaves to reveal bright red or yellow fruit, which is both beautiful and a great food choice for wildlife.
“It’s usually later in the season when the berries have softened up,” she says.
It’s spectacular to see a flock of cedar wax wings descend on a shrub in late winter and pick it clean. ‘Berry Poppins’ is only 3 or 4 feet tall with classic red berries and ‘Berry Heavy Gold’ has bright yellow berries.
Roses are not something gardeners might think of as a great winter plant, but can be beautiful even without flowers.
“They develop the fruit called rose hips,” she says. “They are really quite stunning in the winter.”
‘Oso Easy Petit Pink’ is prolific, filled with flowers all summer which in turn become tiny ‘whimsical’ red hips. ‘At Last’ is a new rose introduction growing in Downey’s garden which is the first fragrant, disease resistant rose. “It gets very large bright orange hips that are quite eye catching,” she says.
Another plant that still provides beauty in the garden after flowering are hydrangeas.
“When you keep the blooms on them it adds so much winter interest. They dry out beautifully and hold their shape when the snow is falling on them,” she says. “It adds such a nice structure. I think everyone needs to plant them, just for that reason.”
Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at everybodygardens.com.