Winter Interest Plants and Winter Shrubs

We all love the amazing colors that many deciduous trees and shrubs take on in autumn before they drop their leaves. Not to be outdone, some winter interest shrubs and trees provide noteworthy texture, architectural structure, and more color in the leafless wintertime, too. Attractive bark, colorful stems, berries that remain into winter, and interesting structure all contribute to winter shrubs.

Don’t overlook the evergreen shrubs, either. These add texture, architecture, and still more green color to our gardens with winter interest plants.

Here are some of our favorite shrubs for great fall color and winter interest. (Those in bold type are available from Perfect Plants Nursery.) 

The Most Showy Trees and Winter Shrubs for Fall Color

Usually grown for their oversized clusters of white cone shaped flower buds that have spring blooms, oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) takes on a beautiful burgundy-red hue in fall. It prefers slightly acidic soil and light shade when growing across the United States in USDA zones 4-9. It is drought tolerant once established. The peeling bark on this small hedge is a plus too!
Bloodgood Japanese Maple sets up an astonishing show of red color in the fall and winter.
Most Japanese maples (A. palmatum), including Perfect Plants’ ‘Bloodgood Maple, turn amazing shades of red in autumn; other varieties turn yellow or orange. It is a small tree only growing up to 20 feet tall that requires full sun to part shade. This ornamental is a great choice for winter trees in your yard that also provides a gorgeous display!

Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) is aptly named for its fire-red autumn foliage. Smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) foliage turns brilliant yellows and oranges too.

A blueberry plant with red colored leaves during the fall | Photo by foto4lizzie | Licensed by CC
The sumacs (Rhus spp.) are among the showiest shrubs in autumn. Most have leaves that turn brilliant red before dropping. You can see a picture of this brilliant display in the top left photo of the blog post. Sumac trees have rust colored bark with a pink inside.

Don’t overlook the edible blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) Most have brightly colored orange and red fall foliage.

Evergreen Holly Winter Plants

The evergreen hollies (Ilex spp.) brighten up the winter landscape with their glossy dark green leaves and bright red or black berries that often persist well into late winter – until hungry birds finish them off, that is. Perfect Plants offers several kinds of broadleaf evergreen holly bushes, each with unique properties for all-season appeal. These flowering plants are easy to grow and will provide your landscape with color and texture.

Carissa holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Carissa’) has leaves that get darker green during the winter and long lasting bigger-than-average red berries. This shrub stays compact at 3-4 feet tall and 4-6 feet wide at full maturity.

Dwarf Burford Holly Berries are a great source of food for wildlife and birds.
Dwarf Buford holly (Ilex cornuta ‘burfordii nana’) produces big red berries that are relished by birds, and it doesn’t need cross-pollination. These berries will appear from winter to early spring.

Helleri holly (Ilex crenata ‘Helleri’) has bird-friendly black berries in fall and winter.

Needlepoint holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Needlepoint’) has distinctive long and narrow, twisted leaves, and bright red berries.

Oakleaf holly (Ilex ‘Conaf’) produces bright red berries without needing a pollenizer.

Schilling holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Schilling’s Dwarf’) aka dwarf yaupon, has bright red berries on female plants, so you will need a male plant for pollination.

Soft Touch holly (Ilex crenata ‘Soft Touch’) has soft, billowy foliage and little black berries.

Sky Pencil plants produce dainty white flowers before the purple red berries in fall.
Saved for last:  Sky Pencil holly (Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’) is an evergreen holly from Japan with a skinny, columnar shape that adds attention-grabbing vertical structure to the garden in all growing seasons, and purple berries in the fall on female plants. The berries will form after dainty white flowers in the spring and summer. The Japanese holly is one of our favorite types of holly for early summer flowers!

Other Evergreen Shrubs in Winter

Other evergreen winter flowering shrubs that look good in winter include the mahonias: Japanese mahonia (Mahonia japonica) has holly-like foliage and fragrant yellow flowers followed by purple-blue berries in winter. Oregon grape holly (M. aquifolium) is similar but with elongated leaves.

The pyracanthas (Pyracantha spp.) have brilliant orange-red berries that last all winter.

There are many camellias to choose from. Their shiny evergreen foliage color and gorgeous flowers (white, coral, light pink, bright yellow, or red) warm up the cold months, especially in semi-shady corners of the yard.

Spreading yew berries just before they have turned red | Photo by Juan Carlos López Almansa | Licensed by CC
Spreading Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’) has dark green needles that stay glossy green all year, and branches with spirally arranged foliage that add texture in the landscape. Bright red berries are icing on the winter cake. These evergreen winter shrubs are a great plant for window boxes too.

The olive-green foliage of wintergold mugo pine (Pinus mugo ‘Wintergold’) turns a rich golden yellow in the winter months.

The strikingly red purple leaves of loropetalums, including Ruby loropetalum (Loropetalum chinense ‘Ruby’) and Zhuzhou loropetalum (L. chinense ‘Zhuzhou’) provide color all year, but their profusions of bright pink flowers in winter make them must-haves for all season interest.

Don’t overlook Mrs. Schiller’s delight viburnum (Viburnum obovatum ‘Mrs Schiller’s Delight’), with its neat, compact shape and bright red fruit.

The tea olive plant flowers in winter with small dainty white blooms that are extremely fragrant.
The ever popular tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) blooms all winter long with little white flowers that send an amazingly sweet scent throughout the yard. No southern backyard should be without these fragrant flowers.

Winter Flowering Deciduous Shrubs

Evergreen isn’t the only way to go. Deciduous shrubs will lose their yellowing leaves in the winter but not before they show out a brilliant display. Deciduous fall color shrubs that stand out in winter include American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) that delights with otherworldly iridescent purple berries, favored by the birds as much as by people.

American and Asian witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana and H. japonica) are deciduous fall blooming shrubs that explode with peculiar spider-like yellow to red flowers in winter. Added interest: the petals curl up at night and open up during the day.

Deciduous shrubs with showy stems grab attention in winter. Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), sometimes called red willow or red twig dogwood, is a deciduous shrub noteworthy for its dark red stems in early fall and winter: A real attention grabber. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ is another red stemmed dogwood, and C. stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’ has bright green stems.

Northern Cardinal male in Common Winterberry holly bush (Ilex verticillata) in winter, Marion Co, Illinois.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), unlike the evergreen hollies with their glossy foliage, is a deciduous holly that erupts in winter with shiny red berries on bare stems. The berries are relished by the birds and a treat for the fall gardener. Only the female plants produce berries, so you will need two to tango.

Many of the Viburnums have beautiful berries that persist through winter. Some are bright red, as in American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum). We love the metallic steel-gray berries of spring bouquet viburnum (Viburnum tinus ‘Compactum’), rusty blackhaw viburnum (V. rufidulum), and southern arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum). Dawn viburnum (Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’) retains clusters of pinkish white flowers on bare stems all winter long.

Choose fall flowering shrubs with winter interest for a garden as engaging in winter as it is in spring. Winter gardens are a great way to keep color and visuals throughout the year.