Yard and Garden: Trees and Shrubs with Winter Color

Brighten the drab winter landscape with colorful tree choices

November 7, 2022, 12:31 pm | Aaron J. Steil

AMES, Iowa -- In Iowa, the predominant colors of the home landscape in late fall and winter are white and various shades of gray and brown. An excellent way to brighten the drab winter landscape is to plant trees and shrubs that possess colorful fruit or bark. In this article, horticulturists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach answer questions about shrubs and trees that add color to the winter landscape.

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 Firebird® ‘Prairiefire,’ ‘Donald Wyman,’ Royal Raindrops™, Red Jewel®, and Sugar Tyme®. Snow Crystal™ ‘Indian Magic,’ and 'Adirondack' have reddish-orange fruit, while Harvest Gold®, 'Doubloons,' and Cinderella® are yellow-fruited cultivars.

hawthorn crataegus phaenopyrum fruit red fall.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’).

Additional trees and shrubs that possess attractive red fruit in late fall and winter include Iowa natives such as staghorn sumac, (Rhus typhina), American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum opulus var. americanum), and eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) as well as North American natives like red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Other plants with ornamental fruit in winter include cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus) and Meserve hybrid hollies (Ilex x meserveae). Native to parts of Iowa, snowberries and coralberries (Symphoricarpos spp.) have white, pink, or purplish-red fruit. Native to North America, black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) and Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) have fruit in purple and bluish-green respectively.

The brightly colored fruit of these trees and shrubs usually does not persist through the entire 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 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 6 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. The closely related bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) and Tatarian dogwood (Cornus alba) also have several cultivars with brightly colored stems.

Additionally, there are several cultivars of willow that 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.

These dogwoods and willows should be pruned on a frequent basis to promote new growth as young shoots possess the brightest colors. ‘Flame’ and coral bark willows should be pruned annually. Cut back plants to near ground level in late winter. The dogwoods require less pruning. In late winter, remove approximately one-third of the oldest stems near ground level.

Which trees have attractive bark?

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

The paperbark maple (Acer griseum) is a small ornamental tree that grows 20 to 30 feet tall. The trunk and stems of this tree possess a beautiful cinnamon to reddish brown exfoliating bark. Trees are winter hardy throughout much of Iowa in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.

Other trees with showy bark include the lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) with exfoliating patches of green, white, brown, and purple bark. Pekin lilac (Syringa reticulata subsp. Pekinensis) and Amur chokecherry (Prunus maackii) both have reddish brown to cinnamon-red bark. Some exhibit little or no bark exfoliation, while others exfoliate heavily depending on the cultivar.  Patches of brown, gray, green, and orange bark can be found on lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia). The Iowa native Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is a large tree with younger branches that exhibit colorful patches of bark in reddish-brown, white, orange, and green colors.

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 providing flowers in late fall and winter. Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms from mid-October to early December. Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) and intermedia witch hazels (hybrids resulting from crosses between Japanese and Chinese witch hazels) flower from early February to late March. The small flowers are fragrant and have four, strap-like peals in yellow with some cultivars blooming in orange, red or burgundy.

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