Red in the Winter Landscape

It’s cold and snowy and a little icy outside my door. First power outage is behind me, and spring seems very far away. I’ve almost finished redecorating the upstairs bedroom (although it still needs some artwork on the walls). But my eye is hungry for a strong jolt of color.

Red is a powerful hue, one that draws your eye, wherever you are. Here’s an image from my Mexico trip, on a street where someone REALLY liked red.

Guanajuato, architecture

Street in Guanjuato

A little red goes a long way (and a lot can be overpowering). So in the garden, I use it judiciously. But this time of year, when much of the landscape is muted tones or covered in snow, even a little bit can lift your spirits. Berries on Ilex verticillata (winterberry) look great in snow

Ilex verticillata, winterberry

Snowy Ilex verticillata berries

or in pots with other seasonal choices, like the pine branches here.

Winterberry, Ilex verticillata

A spray of Ilex verticillata berries in a late-fall container at the National Arboretum.

Another favorite pairing for them in the landscape is with ornamental grasses.

Winterberry, ornamental grasses, winter

Winterberry with ornamental grasses at the National Arboretum.

Berries aren’t the only place to find reds in the winter landscape. Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo’ is one of my go-to plants for winter interest. In the summer, its variegated leaves can light up shady areas of the garden, although it also does well in sun. But come winter, its branches are red, providing a strong focal point and lots of visual interest. The newest shoots have the strongest color, so prune out the oldest canes in the spring periodically. And plant this shrub, if you can, against a background of evergreens for maximum impact.

Cornus alba 'Ivory Halo'

The stems of variegated red twig dogwood show their color only in the winter.

Finally, if you’re looking for something larger, try Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku,’ often referred to as the “coral bark” Japanese maple. Like ‘Ivory Halo,’ its reddest branches are the newest. In the growing season, its leaves are a peaceful green, turning to a yellow-red in the fall. Somewhat twiggy in habit, it won’t eat the house, which also can make it susceptible to winter breakage from heavy snows. Here is a shot of a young specimen which I saw at a recent trade show.

Acer palmatum Sango Kaku, coral bark Japanese maple

The coral bark Japanese maple offers another alternative for gardeners seeking some strong color in their winter landscape.

So for those of you who are looking for some red to perk things up during the winter in your garden, the options are varied. Go for it!

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10 Comments on “Red in the Winter Landscape”

  1. Susan Hirsch Says:

    your post is remarkable in it’s redness!!

    • Melissa Says:

      Couldn’t agree more. It really does show that it’s easy to overdo this color in terms of design, no matter where it is – on the street or in the garden!

  2. Laurrie Says:

    Love these reds. My winterberry fruits don’t last much past Christmas, but that’s okay, they feed the wildlife. Redtwig dogwoods are gorgeous (but mine are ‘Isanti’, a smaller cultivar and are barely peeking up through the snowbank, just its tips are visible!) There is nothing like red in the winter scape, and your pictures cheered me up.

    • Melissa Says:

      I’ve never heard of that redtwig dogwood cultivar and I will look it up right away! You are so right about the winterberry fruits not lasting long, same are true of ‘Winter King’ hawthorn berries. Go birds! So glad the red cheers you up; it has the same effect on me.


  3. Wonderful examples of red! I love the street and the Japanese Maple. Good luck with your finding the right colors and artwork!!

    • Melissa Says:

      Carol, thanks for the comment. That Sango Kaku is really something, isn’t it? (Not to mention the street in Guanajuato). Red is such a warm color, especially welcome in the winter. Hope you are well on the farm!

  4. Pam/Digging Says:

    I love red in any season, but it does certainly warm things up in winter. Pretty pics!

  5. John Says:

    Nice lead-in from the streets of Mexico to our cold climate. We do need that red warmth on the hearth and in the landscape. A related dogwood with red bark is Cornus sanguinea. I planted the variety Midwinter Fire this fall and the last time I looked it was positively glowing. Unfortunately my Coral Bark Maple is a different story. The first one was demolished by deer that took offense at its red bark or its simulated antlers. In any case the tiny tree was brought down to about a foot high stub. I planted a bigger one last spring only to get caught by the drought while I was on vacation. More than half of the branches died back and what’s left doesn’t look that great. But for all the reasons you mentioned I will keep trying. It’s a superb tree for the landscape.

    • Melissa Says:

      I tried finding ‘Midwinter Fire’ for a client a couple of years ago (along with ‘Arctic Fire’) but it wasn’t readily available from our wholesale sources (new cultivars are often easier to find from retail sources first) but I think that has changed now so I will try again, encouraged by your description. Sorry to hear about the deer damage on the coral bark maple. A neighbor across the street had severe snow-related breakage on their 5-year-old specimen so I am leary of using it but am encouraged by your persistence.


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