The ten best plants for winter colour

Bring colour and scent into your winter garden with these outstanding plants, urges garden designer and Chelsea Flower Show judge James Alexander-Sinclair

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1. Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)


The first bulb of the year pops up all over woodland and wilder gardens around January. The flowers are as bright as neon egg yolks with a frill of green foliage. Once they have finished flowering they disappear back into the ground for the summer.


2. Skimmia japonica


Evergreen shrubs that look good on the edge of borders or in pots. They are best with a bit of acidity in the soil but are pretty sure to flower reliably and produce good red berries. Excellent for flower arrangements. Pictured: Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’.

3. Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica)


An evergreen shrub sometimes called the Heavenly bamboo even though it is nothing like a true bamboo. If you have a garden ravaged by hungry deer or bunnies then they are pretty much guaranteed to leave this alone. Pictured: Nandina domestica ‘Fire Power’

4. Scarlet willow (Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’)


Another plant grown for its stems: this time the colour of a squeezed blood orange. There’s also one called golden willow (Salix alba var. vitellina) if you are looking for yellow, or Salix myrsinifolia for stems of purply black. There’s lots of choice, but they are big shrubs that need hard pruning.

5. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)


Possibly an odd choice for a winter plant but it is an evergreen shrub that is hardy in most gardens. Every time you brush or stroke the foliage the smell will remind you that the cold will end and summer will come again.

6. Red-barked dogwood (Cornus alba)


In the summer this is a bit of a dull fish. The leaves are unremarkable and the flowers are tiny. However, once the leaves have fallen, the new stems are as red as Santa’s coat and sparkle in the watery winter light.

7. Ghost bramble (Rubus thibetanus)


You do not usually associate brambles with winter. The blackberries are long gone and all that is left are the prickles. However, Rubus thibetanus has wonderful white stems that stand out well amid the gloom. Image via ukgardenphotos on Flickr. 

8. Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula)


If a plant has no leaves, berries or flowers then what else is left to make it stand out in a crowd? Bark, of course: this small tree has the most beautiful conker brown bark that looks as if it has been buffed by an energetic drill sergeant.


9. Witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis)


A splash of colour to lighten any winter day. Its odd-looking flowers have petals like paper streamers – they come in yellow, orange or red depending on the variety. Flowers before the leaves appear so completely unmissable. As a bonus it smells of spiced boudoirs.

10. Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’)


You know when this plant is ‘in da house’ – or rather ‘in da garden’ – as the scent is sweet, slightly sultry and carries a long way. Loads of creamy yellow flowers are followed by handsome vase-shaped seed capsules. Image via Pootershow on Flickr. 



The RHS Plant Finder will tell you where to find them. Many are stocked by, who kindly supplied several of the images we have used. Scarlet willow and red dogwood saplings are available from