Native Plants Add Winter Interest to Your Garden

by Liz McBride

Photos by Liz McBride and David Thompson

Spring through fall, native plants beautify our gardens and provide food for birds and insects. But even in the dead of winter, they lighten the heart and feed the hungry. Stripped of leaves and petals, native plants add form, texture, and even color to the home garden, especially when it is blanketed with snow. And while we enjoy their good looks, native plants shelter over-wintering insects and nourish birds with berries and seeds.

Here are a few examples.

Our native witch hazel (above, Hamamelis virginiana sp.) puts on a surprise show in late fall with lemon-yellow flowers that hug its branches and linger into winter. Witch hazel grows in sun or shade and forms a graceful shrub 8 to 15 feet tall depending on conditions — a welcome spot of color against the snow.   
What dreary winter day could not be brightened by the red berries of our native hawthorn (above, Crataegus sp.). About 40 species grow in Wisconsin, either as a large thorny shrub or small tree. Hawthorns prefer open sun or light shade and stand 16 to 50 feet tall, depending on the species. 
Another small tree or large shrub, American bladdernut (above, Staphylea trifolia sp.) tolerates shade, which makes it an attractive choice for an urban woodland garden. The papery bladder-like seed capsules hang in clusters deep into the winter.   
Growing up to 6 feet tall, Joe-Pye weed (above, Eutrochium sp.) makes a statement any time of year, including winter when its strong stems keep it upright and the persistent seed heads add fluffy texture. This native can spread enthusiastically, however, and needs room to grow or occasional digging up.  
Goldenrod (above, Solidago sp.) stands tall and erect above shorter plants, and dabs of snow highlight its attractive form. About 20 species are found in Wisconsin with 6 to 10 of those common. They grow to various heights. Most like full sun but some species will tolerate shade. 
The upright stalks of sweet black-eyed Susan (above, Rudbeckia subtomentosa sp.) offer an eye-catching vertical element. These natives are especially adorable when they sport tall white “hats” of new-fallen snow. This tough prairie plant thrives in sun, tolerates part shade, and grows from 2 to 5 feet tall.