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Best plants for winter colour

Are you looking for something to brighten up the dark winter days? Bring pinks, yellows, purples and greens into your garden with our guide to the best plants for winter colour.

Yellow flowers in snow
Published: December 3rd, 2021 at 12:16 pm
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Finding colour in the cold, dark days of winter can be a difficult task, as many plants, shrubs and trees enter a state of dormancy in a bid to conserve their energy for the warmer, longer, brighter days ahead. But the thought of waiting for spring for your first dose of colour can be an unpleasing one.

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Fear not, bringing reds, yellows, greens and purples to your garden and window boxes in winter is possible, as garden designer and Chelsea Flower Show judge James Alexander-Sinclair reveals with his selection of colourful winter plants.

James explores some of the best plants for winter colour, in each case including details on when they flower, soil type and how to prune your winter plants.

Colourful winter plants for your garden

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Yellow winter flower
Add yellow to your garden with winter aconite/Credit: weisschr, Getty

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.


Japanese skimmia (Skimmia japonica)

Plants for winter colour
A burst of pink with Japanese skimmia/Credit: unknown, Getty

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.


Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica)

Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica)
Reds and greens with heavenly bamboo/Credit: seven75, Getty

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’.


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

Scarlet willow (Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’)
Why not try the burnt-orange branches of scarlet willow?/Credit: unknown, Getty

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.


Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary offers reliable greenery to your winter garden/Credit: unknown, Getty

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.


Red-barked dogwood (Cornus alba)

Red-barked dogwood (Cornus alba sibirica)
Red-barked dogwood (Cornus alba sibirica)/ Credit: unknown, Getty

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.


Ghost bramble (Rubus thibetanus)

Winter brambles
Ghost bramble (Rubus thibetanus)/Credit: ukgardenphotos, Flickr

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.


Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula)

Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula)
Tibetan cherry offers a copper trunk for winter colour/Credit: unknown, Getty

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.


Witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis)

Witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis)
Witch hazel's yellow flowers appear before its leaves/Credit: unknown, Getty

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.


Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’)

Yellow flowers in winter
Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox ‘Luteus’)/Credit: Alastair James, Getty

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.


Cyclamen

Pink flowers in snow
Joyous pink cyclamens in snow/Credit: unknown, Getty

If it's floral colour you're after, plant cyclamens. These perennial plants offer a great option for under-tree planting, as well as shady borders. Position alongside snowdrops, winter aconites and primroses for a natural winter woodland look.


Best places to buy winter plants

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


Jobs for the garden in the winter

Winter can feel like a gloomy time in the garden. The flowers of high summer are a distant memory, the rain is here to stay and the change of the clocks has put paid to any hope of working in the evenings.

However, there is still much to be done. Here are some ideas to keep you busy and lay the foundation for a great spring and summer next year and can be a more sustainable way to garden as there’s less seeds and crops wasted.

From looking after your garden tools, to splitting plants and planting bulbs for the new seasons, getting outside in your garden in the winter months can be rewarding and give you a chance to breathe fresh air and stay connected to the outdoors. Just remember to wrap up warm and reward yourself with a hit drink afterwards!

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Here is our month-by-month winter gardening guide.

Women in garden in winter
Jobs for the garden this winter/Credit: freemixer, Getty

Authors

James Alexander-Sinclair is a garden designer, writer, bad juggler and a member of the RHS Council

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