Yard and Garden: Finding Colorful Trees and Shrubs in Winter

AMES, Iowa – Winter can be a drab time for those who enjoy colorful landscapes. Freezing temperatures and the natural life cycles of plants lead to some drab, boring colors compared to spring, summer and fall. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A number of trees and plants can provide a splash of variety to landscapes.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach horticulturists can help answer queries regarding colorful winter plants and trees. To have additional questions answered, contact the ISU Hortline at 515-294-3108 or hortline@iastate.edu.

Which trees and shrubs have colorful fruit in winter?

While crabapples (Malus spp.) are usually planted for their flowers, many cultivars also possess colorful, persistent fruit. Crabapple cultivars with red fruit include ‘David,’ ‘Donald Wyman,’ ‘Mary Potter,’ Red Jewel™, and Sugar Tyme®.  ‘Indian Magic,’ ‘Professor Sprenger,’ and ‘Snowdrift’ have reddish orange fruit, while Harvest Gold® and Golden Raindrops® are yellow-fruited cultivars.  

Hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) are another group of small, flowering trees that possess attractive fruit.  Hawthorns produce white flowers in spring. In fall, their small (¼ to ½ inch in diameter) fruit turn red and persist into winter. Two hawthorns noted for their excellent fruit displays are the Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and ‘Winter King’ hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’).  

Shrubs that possess attractive fruit in late fall and winter include red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Meserve hybrid hollies (Ilex x meserveae), and American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum opulus var. americanum). All of the aforementioned shrubs have red fruit. Snowberries and coralberries (Symphoricarpos spp.) have white, pink or purplish red fruit.  

The brightly colored fruit of the previously mentioned trees and shrubs usually does not persist through winter. Hungry birds and squirrels devour some fruit. Much of the remaining fruit eventually turns to reddish brown or black due to cold winter temperatures. However, the fruit display in late fall and early winter can be spectacular.

Which trees and shrubs have colorful bark in winter?

One of the most beautiful sights in winter is the bright red twigs of the redosier dogwood (Cornus sericea) set against a backdrop of newly fallen snow. Native to Iowa, the redosier dogwood grows 8 to 10 feet tall.  Several colorful cultivars are available.  ‘Cardinal’ has bright, cherry red stems.  ‘Alleman’s Compact’ is a red-stemmed, compact cultivar that grows 4 to 5 feet tall.  Arctic Fire™ is a red-stemmed, 3- to 4-foot-tall shrub. ‘Flaviramea’ is a 5- to 6-foot-tall shrub with yellow stems.  

Several cultivars of willow also possess colorful bark. The ‘Flame’ willow (Salix ‘Flame’) has reddish orange stems. The stems of the coral bark willow (Salix alba ‘Britzensis’) vary from yellow-orange to orange-red.  

A widely planted tree that possesses attractive, exfoliating bark is the river birch (Betula nigra). The exfoliating bark varies from salmon-white to reddish brown. Often planted as a multi-stemmed specimen or clump, the river birch may eventually reach a height of 50 to 60 feet.  

Two small ornamental trees with exfoliating bark are the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and Amur chokecherry (Prunus maackii). The paperbark maple grows 20 to 30 feet tall, possesses cinnamon to reddish brown exfoliating bark, and is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8. The bark characteristics of the Amur chokecherry are highly variable. Bark color varies from brownish yellow to reddish brown to cinnamon red. Some exhibit little or no bark exfoliation, while others exfoliate heavily. The Amur chokecherry grows 25 to 30 feet tall.

Are there any trees or shrubs that bloom in winter?

While most trees and shrubs bloom in spring or summer, witch hazels are a notable exception. Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms from mid-October to early December. Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) and the intermedia witch hazels (hybrids resulting from crosses between Japanese and Chinese witch hazels) flower from early February to late March.  

Witch hazel flowers consist of four, strap-like petals that curl up on cold days and unfurl in warm weather. Common witch hazel, a large shrub or small tree that grows 20 to 25 feet tall, produces yellow flowers. The flowers of vernal witch hazel vary from yellow to brownish red. Hamamelis vernalis may eventually attain a height of 10 feet. The flowers on intermedia witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) range in color from yellow to orange to red to purple (depending on the cultivar).  

Notable cultivars of common witch hazel include ‘Harvest Moon’ (lemon yellow flowers, vase-shaped habit, grows 15 to 20 feet tall) and ‘Little Suzie’ (soft yellow flowers, 4 to 6 feet tall).  ‘Autumn Embers’ (copper-red flowers, 8 to 10 feet tall), ‘Amethyst’ (reddish purple flowers, 6 to 8 feet tall), and ‘Carnea’ (burgundy red flowers, 6 to 8 feet tall) are attractive vernal witch hazel cultivars.

‘Arnold Promise’ (bright yellow flowers, 12 to 15 feet tall), ‘Diane’ (copper red flowers, 8 to 12 feet tall), and ‘Jelena’ (coppery orange flowers, 8 to 12 feet tall) are popular intermedia witch hazels.