Evergreen shrubs come into their own in winter, when others have shed their leaves and only the silhouettes of bare branches remain.
They underline the importance of foliage in the garden and its enduring beauty, unlike the ephemeral charm and colour of flowers. From rich emerald, to gold, flame and scarlet, evergreens colour the winter planting picture.
In sun and shade, in beds and borders, and pots on the patio, evergreens add colour and texture. So what are the ten best foliage shrubs for winter interest?
There are plenty to choose from in mild temperate regions, in colder climates gardeners need to look to the hardier conifers. In warmer zones the choice is even broader. Here’s my choice of ten of the best:
1. Ilex aquifolium ‘Myrtifolia Aurea Maculata’
I could have chosen any one of many variegated hollies, grown more for the beauty of their leaves, rather than their ability to produce berries. This one is a male, so it does not fruit. However it has small, sparkling leaves and a bushy, branched habit which makes it ideal to plant in a shady corner or under trees. Bright, reflective and altogether cheerful.
2. Mahonia japonica
Usually grown for its fragrant winter flowers and described as a shrub with green, holly like foliage, few remark on the fabulous hues Mahonia japonica foliage takes on when grown on poor soil in an open position. The colours are enduring through autumn winter and spring.
3. Aucuba japonica
Boring old spotted laurel it may be. But few shrubs deliver such glossy green, gold splashed leaves in shady town gardens. It is also great for big containers and copes brilliantly with atmospheric pollution. A true survivor, but more of an aristocrat that we give it credit for.
4. Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’
Ideal for the small garden, narrow border or a pot, it prefers a sheltered situation and needs some direct sun to colour well. Plenty of fine, fern-like foliage, arranged in layers that rustle when stirred by the wind. Khaki green in summer, flame in winter, and one of the showiest subjects on a frosty day.
5. Nandina domestica ‘Obsessed’
A newer introduction ‘Obsessed’ is elegant, sophisticated and very Japanese in character. Superb for a pot or container and ideal for the small garden. The leaves colour crimson-flame in winter and add a surprising shot of colour. Grow it in a dark glazed pot on the patio to warm those winter days.
6. Viburnum davidii
The plain dark green ribbed leaves on red leaf stalks that clothe this mounded shrub have great presence, whatever the weather. Dark, shining and dramatic in the wet; magical and sculptural when etched with frost. Great in shade, grows on any soil and great for a pot or container, no garden should be without it.
7. Pinus mugo ‘Wintergold’
Never say that you don’t like conifers, until you have explored them all, and that may take some time. There is a conifer to suit most situations and many sit happily with other shrubs, perennials and grasses in mixed borders. Pinus mugo ‘Wintergold’ is one of the finest for winter colour. The olive green foliage turns rich old-gold as the weather gets colder. A basic structural plant this shrubby pine becomes the star of the show in the depths of winter.
8. Leucothoe ‘Curly Red’
There are many varieties of leucothoe that colour richly in winter. These low growing shrubs need acid soil to thrive, so grow them in pots of lime-free growing media. ‘Curly Red’ is great fun with its ascending stems and curled and ribbed foliage. Team it up with Nandina ‘Obsessed’ and black ophiopogon to create a dramatic winter picture.
9. Hebe ‘Frozen Flame’
Probably the best known hebe for winter foliage is the widely planted Hebe ‘Red Edge’ with tightly packed steel-green leaves that turn purple at the tips of the shoots in winter. ‘Frozen Flame’ looks more fragile with its narrow grey-green and white subtly variegated foliage, flushed with pink becoming intensely burgundy pink in winter. It is a fabulous foliage shrub for a patio pot or a small garden.
10. Pseudowintera colorata
My final choice is this remarkable small New Zealand shrub with aromatic, leathery leaves. They are yellow-green, flushed with pink, edged and blotched with crimson. The colour becomes more intense in winter. It needs neutral to acid soil so grow it in a pot as you would leucothoe if your soil is alkaline. It likes semi-shade, so under the light shade of trees is ideal.
Of course any evergreen shrubs you plant for winter interest have all year appeal. They may not be as outstanding against others when spring comes but their role in the planting picture is still as valuable.