February 26, 2011

Three shrubs for all seasons

The term “winter interest” intrigues me. Frankly, I have no interest in winter at this point, and neither do most people who read blogs at this time of year. But there is some truth and wisdom in selecting plants, trees, and shrubs that display well in all seasons, particularly in northern climates with short growing seasons.

Three shrubs that offer multi-season visual appeal in my garden are:

1. Hydrangea (Hydrangea L.). Some varieties of Hydrangea bloom only on the previous year’s growth, some bloom only on new growth, and others bloom on both. The shrubs I have bloom on both.

In spring, Hydrangeas form new shoots, and buds open on old shoots. The leaves unfurl in late spring and grow to approximately three-by-four inches. The flowers follow, starting as small, compact flower heads which burst into large, colorful mopheads during the summer.

Hydrangeas hold their flowers throughout the summer. The two shrubs I have produce pink, lavender, and blue flowers depending on the PH of the soil. In recent years, I haven’t added anything to the soil to change the color, so they tend to produce pink to lavender flowers. In fall, the leaves are tinged with pink and yellow hues.

I clip some flowers for arrangements during the summer and leave some on the shrubs until late fall, when I clip the remaining flowers and trim the shrubs before winter. The dried flowers can be enjoyed all winter. I took this photo today of a dried Hydrangea sprig that has decorated my powder room all winter.

2. Lilac (Syringa l.). This shrub supplies the most pleasant scent in my garden. The peak of its blossoms and pungency hits right about the time I’m planting my vegetable and annual flower gardens in late May. Just thinking about the scent makes me smile.

Though the Lilac's blooming time is short (one to two weeks), its leaves maintain a lovely bright green hue throughout the summer. In fall, like the Hydrangea leaves, Lilac leaves become variegated with pinks, yellows, and various shades of green. Lilacs don’t hold much winter interest, but some lingering leaves hint at the previous year’s growth.

3. Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus). Burning Bush takes the prize as the most dramatic four-season shrub in my garden. In spring, the leaves provide a lush backdrop to other more showy plants. Throughout the summer, the leaves slowly tinge with color, peaking in a bright magenta/fuschia color that is hard to describe or classify—arguably the most eye-popping autumn color in my garden.

In winter, berries remain on the shrubs until birds finish their feast.

Soon, these beauties will turn the corner on “winter interest” and begin their more dramatic displays of color. (Click on any images to view larger in a new window.)

Burning Bush with Redbud in foreground.


  1. These are some of my favorite plants in the yard back home in Wisconsin. I wish they grew here in Tucson.

  2. I have Endless Summer hydrangeas that I have a hard time keeping moist enough and Miss Kim lilacs that have more than doubled in size in only 3 yrs. Miss Hydrangea meet Mr Soaker Hose!! Your burning bush are beautiful!! Love the fall color. :o)

  3. Hydrangeas are the only of the three that I grow, already showing green at their bases here. There is not enough cold here for lilacs. I wish. Not for cold, but for lilacs.

  4. I have many hydrangea and lilac in my small yard, but use the burning bush often for great hedge rows in large gardens. I know it is not native, but it makes a stunning display along a gardens perimeter, and like you said, extends the season.

  5. I do love all three... lovely post!

  6. @rohrerbot: Tucson is a much nicer place to be in late February. I'm jealous. So I guess there's a trade-off. :)

    @TS: One of my Hydrangeas is Endless Summer. I've been really happy with it, although I do have to water it, too, in the middle of the summer. But I can't believe how big the leaves and flower heads are!

    @Nell: I can't imagine a season without Lilacs! But then I'm sure you can grow Rhododendrons and Azaleas pretty easily--most varieties of those beauties struggle here.

    @Donna: What a lovely picture you paint! I'm imagining a large garden with rows of Burning Bush ablaze in autumn!

    @Carolyn: Are you able to grow these shrubs in Utah? They'd be stunning in the foreground with the Wasatch Mountains in the background!

  7. I have to confess to a dislike of the mophead hydrangeas, as compared to the lacecaps or Hydrangea quercifolia's spikes. I think it is because I have seen so many stark plantings of serried ranks of fluorescent blue specimens surrounded by bare soil in seaside gardens. I'd be interested to see them grown well in a mixed planting scheme. The burning bush, on the other hand, is wonderful!

  8. I also have a Lilac and an Hydrangea lacecup, both darker than yours, and also enjoy them almost all year long.

  9. @Janet: I can imagine that an excess of the blue mopheads would be distasteful. I just have two small shrubs planted near the house. One isn't doing very well and the other one is just right for the spot. The leaves amaze me almost as much as the flowers!

    @Dona: I will check back with your blog to see pictures. I imagine they are lovely in Italy!

  10. Great intro ~ I have no interest in winter at this point either!!

    I have been looking at my garden this year trying to think how I can add more "winter interest" and think I need a few more evergreens? It just all looks so brown right now. I'm excited to see some spring green color. I grow all three (an oak leaf hydrangea tho) in my garden and delight in them as well.

  11. Kathleen: I don't think I appreciate the evergreens enough. They do add winter interest, but green gets a little boring without other colors around it. I think I need to add Red Twig Dogwood.