1 Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) A deciduous holly, it differs from its more familiar relatives in that it drops its leaves in autumn. The dark green leaves turn a pleasant yellowgreen with purple tinges before they fall. The loss of the leaves highlights the fiery red berries, which hang on the shrub through the winter. A native of eastern North America, this shrub provides important winter food for birds. Look for improved cultivars such as ‘Red Sprite’ (compact, 3–4 feet tall), or ‘Winter Red’ (to 8 feet tall with particularly heavy crops of berries).
2 Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.) Northern gardeners must content themselves with the common witch hazel (H. virginiana); this offers bright yellow fall foliage and sweet-scented, tufted yellow flowers from late fall to early winter. Those in Zone 5 and south may enjoy hybrids such as ‘Jelena’ whose leaves turn fiery red and yellow in fall and which bears coppercolor flowers as early as late January.
3 Feather reedgrass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) The ornamental grasses add mellow tones to the fall and winter garden, as well as structure and a haven for birds. One of my favorites is feather reedgrass ‘Karl Foerster’, which is sterile, and so—unlike many other exotic grasses—poses little danger of invasiveness. Deep green leaves and stems sprout pinkish, plumelike flowers in summer, turning golden yellow in fall. ‘Karl Foerster’ maintains its narrow, upright form into the winter (3–6 feet tall, 1–2 feet wide). Tom Christopher gardens and consults on sustainable lawns and landscapes in central Connecticut.
Winterberry Winter in my region of southern New England can be a dreary season, badly in need of brightening. Many plants can help with this, but I particularly favor the following: