Master Tips from a Master Gardener (10/19/17)

Bill Koellner · Wednesday, October 18, 2017
It won’t be long before we are looking at a frost and the winter period starts. Were never sure what type of winter we will experience, or whether we will have much snow. Most gardeners think of winter as down time.

The only thing that’s down, are the leaves, allowing the opportunity to view a different type of beauty for our garden. Look outside your window. What do you see? Perhaps a better question would be what don’t you see. Yes, gone will be the colorful flowers of spring and summer. Is color missing from your winter garden?

We all would like to get to know some of our native shrubs and trees that have bountiful crops of berries in the fall and winter months. Adding these plants into your landscape will provide a different attitude your garden may need in winter season.

Native plants produce autumn crops of berries with the primary purpose of attracting birds and small mammals. Animals depend on this late fall and winter source of food and the plants depend on the animals for seed dispersal. Because we notice both birds and animals, the berries are noticeable and colorful. Additional color and animation will be introduced into the garden when Iowa winter songbirds forage for these small fruits.

Perhaps the best known is the deciduous holly, also called winterberry. Many new species have been introduced in recent years including ‘Red Sprite’ which is a dwarf plant, and also ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Winter Gold’. The native winterberry is spectacular, sporting red clusters of berries on its branches from late fall through the winter months. They are truly brilliant in the landscape. Native winterberries forms a dense shrub that can grow to twenty feet or so.

The possum-haw, a close relative of winterberry, grows in zone 5 in Iowa, is a multi-trunk, small tree that grows taller, to a height of about thirty feet. This is the more commonly encountered species in southern Iowa, but will grow in Muscatine County as we are zone 5b.

Yet one more Ilex, though wild populations are rare, is the American holly. The red berries are set against evergreen leaves making it doubly attractive and quite desirable in the winter landscape. It is easily grown in average, consistently moist, acidic, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade.

Leaves are typically yellow in alkaline soils. American holly tolerates a broad range of soil conditions, but will not tolerate flooding or soils saturated with moisture. Avoid poorly drained soils. Site in locations protected from cold winter winds. Part afternoon shade is best in hot summer climates. Plant foliage loses density in too much shade. Hundreds of horticultural varieties of this species exist and its branches are a welcome sight during the winter season.

Hawthorns are members of the rose family and are there are up to fifty naturally occurring species. This large shrub or small tree is 20-35' tall at maturity. It has a single trunk. Trunk bark is gray-brown, rough-textured, shallowly furrowed, and divided into irregular scaly plates. Branch bark is gray and smooth, while twigs are brown with white lenticels.

The downy hawthorn is also the official state flower of Missouri. All hawthorns have clusters of white rose-like flowers in mid-spring and can be quite showy. It is in the fall and winter months that these small trees show off with bright orange or red berries. These fruits, not tasty when eaten raw, do make excellent jam or jelly if the birds don’t beat you to them.

Eastern Wahoo is in the Bittersweet family. This is a shrub or small tree that becomes up to 25' tall. It produces ascending branches. The central trunk and/or larger branches are covered with a thin gray bark that is slightly rough. Smaller branches are dull green with thin vertical stripes of gray bark, while young shoots are entirely green. The leaves are ovate to narrowly ovate and finely serrated or crenate. The upper surface of each leaf is dark green and hairless, while the lower surface is pale green and finely pubescent.

During the fall, the leaves become yellow or red. The blooming period occurs from late spring to early summer and lasts about a month. The flowers are replaced by 4-lobed seed capsules that become mature during the fall.

At this time, each seed capsule splits open into 4 parts to expose 4 fleshy red fruits that each contain 2 seeds. The seed capsules are light pink or pale purple with a smooth surface; they later become more dark-colored. This is a very showy winter plant.

Why not consider witch hazel? The witch hazel bush is a small tree with fragrant yellow blooms that is closely related to the sweet gum. Although witch hazel has many common names, the generic name means “together with fruit,” which refers to the fact that this special tree is the only tree in North America to have flowers, ripe fruit and next year’s leaf buds on its branches at the same time.. Witch hazel is commonly used to treat insect bites, sunburn and as a refreshing lotion for after shaving.

Witch hazel shrubs can reach 30 feet high and 15 feet wide at maturity and are often referred to as a tree due to this. The plant sets out pretty yellow flowers that are fragrant and resemble dainty ribbons in the fall.

Growing witch hazel shrubs is a favorite amongst gardeners looking for winter color and fragrance. Many people plant witch hazel in a location where they can enjoy not only its beauty but also its sweet aroma. Witch hazel shrubs are excellent as a border, mixed hedge or even a specimen plant, if given enough room to spread. Learning how to grow witch hazel is easy since they require very little care.

Care for witch hazel requires minimal time apart from regular water the first season and pruning only to shape as desired. Witch hazel is not bothered by any serious pests or disease and will tolerate deer some browsing. Some homeowners, who have a lot of deer, put netting around the base of young shrubs to keep the deer from munching.

These are a few ideas to improve your winter interest using native plants.
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