The magnificent native dogwood (Cornus florida) is not much to look at in the dead of winter, though references and overly enthusiastic garden writers might imply that it has four season interest. The clusters of red berries that are evident when the foliage drops in mid autumn (and are the basis of the four season claim) are quickly devoured by birds so that the gray stems are bare in winter except for small button-like buds at the branch tips that will become flowers in mid April.
There is no shame in the dogwood being unremarkable through more than a third of the year, with no foliage, flowers, or berries, and bark that is nothing to shout about. The same is true of many exceptional plants, and there are few plants that attract more than a few weeks of well deserved attention. This is, of course, not reason to give up and plant nothing at all, but an incentive to plant to fill the seasons, and indeed, there are splendid attractions in the winter garden.
With cold temperatures and short daylight many gardeners care only that the winter months pass as quickly and harmlessly as possible. I’ll admit that I feel the same through any period of sunless, chilly days when the wind howls. But, on days when it is pleasant enough to stroll through the garden I cherish the evergreen hollies and nandinas (Nandina domestica, above), loaded with bright red berries. The dark needled cryptomerias and dwarf hemlock are afterthoughts in a garden full of spring blooms, rarely given much attention until the dark foliage stands out against the winter’s gray.
The sky blue needles of spruce are more muted in winter, but with a dusting of snow they recall colder winters (though the coldest Virginia winter is nothing to compare with the spruce’s native habitat). The tall spruces have disappeared from the garden in recent years, victims to encroaching shade as the garden matures, but squat, rounded growing forms (Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’, above) are treasured in the few remaining sunny spots.
In shade or sun there are evergreens with yellow and yellow variegated foliage that stand out against the drab background. Yellow flecked aucubas (Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata’ or ‘Gold Dust’, above) are valued evergreens in all but the deepest shade, and an assortment of yellow cypresses (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Lutea’, below) retain splendid color despite the shortened hours of sunlight.
In a few weeks the evergreens will fade into the background as brightly flowering witch hazels and hellebores catch the eye. The hollies and cryptomerias will return to utilitarian purposes (such as screening) until the flowers and foliage fade and drop in late autumn. Then, again they become remarkable.