Winter Interest In the Garden

By Alyce Goldman and Cathy StClair

Once frost hits, the evergreen plants in your garden really stand out and provide interest in the bleak winter months. Although conifers can provide an evergreen backdrop, there many other plant options to consider. 

When adding either evergreen perennials or shrubs, consider how winter will treat these plants.  Snow load from plowed driveways and walkways may bury a plant for a month and falling snow from a roof may totally flatten a specimen.  Also, by using a magnesium chloride product for ice treatment on hard surfaces, you can protect both plants and pets from salt damage. 

Deer resistance is another important aspect to keep in mind.  Deer browsing can increase in winter due to the lack of other tasty plants to eat.  

Here are a few plants to consider for winter interest in your garden.

Mahonia bealei

An evergreen shrub with columnar growth with early yellow flowers for spring foraging bees followed by dark blue berries that are adored by birds. The sharp spines at the end of the leaves make this plant very deer resistant. It can be used as a barrier to help protect other planting from deer browsing.

For shade to part shade. Deer resistant. Find more information here.

Illicium floridanum

An underused evergreen shrub for shade that is a US native (from areas south of Delaware County). The fragrant foliage makes it unattractive to deer.  Illicium blooms in spring and is available in many cultivars. While preferring a moist, sheltered spot, it tolerates dry shade when established. Find more information here.

Leucothoe axillaris

A native, evergreen shrub with cascading foliage that gently expands eventually reaching 3-4’.  There are variegated and solid green varieties – all with fragrant white flowers in spring. It prefers shade to part shade and moist, acidic soils. It is considered deer resistant. More information here.

Yucca filamentosa

A great native plant that provides a spiky contrast to other round-leaved evergreens in the garden. There are different cultivars including solid green and varieties with yellow variegation. This plant creates impressive spikes of flowers in early summer. It grows best in full sun to part shade. It is drought tolerant and works well in outdoor planters. Beware the leaves are tipped with spines, making the plant quite deer resistant. More information here.

Sarcococca hookerianii

A glossy-leaved, low-growing, groundcover plant that provides sweet smelling flowers in very early spring – earning its common name, Sweet Box. It is a good “socks” plant for planting under other shrubs and can tolerate dry shade once established. It is deer and rabbit resistant. Here is our plant profile for this plant. You can also find more information here.


Hellebores are an extremely versatile group of perennials that look good pretty much anywhere except for hot sun.  The foliage holds up all season until new growth pushes forth during the winter.  There are several species of Hellebore and many cultivars resulting in a variety of flower colors and forms.  Many bloom very early – in February or even January if mild so they provide nectar and pollen for bees early in the season. They truly are a year-round perennial that is not bothered by deer or rabbits.  More information: helleborus orientalis, helleborus niger, and Wikipedia for more info than you probably ever wanted to know about Hellebores.

Rohdea japonica

A great plant for dry shade, it has low, evergreen, strappy leaves and develops bright red berries in winter.   It will expand slowly to form a ground cover.  It is very deer resistant. More information here.


Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is a native evergreen fern.  Deer will eat this if desperate but otherwise it provides an upright, evergreen clump.  Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) will grow up to 2’ tall and new growth is an orangish-pink that matures to green.


Carex are an extremely versatile group of grasses that can have either upright growth or a more relaxed cascading look.  You can find a Carex for just about any situation; sun, shade, wet, or dry.  There are native and non-native varieties of  Carex and a large majority are evergreen. Two varieties to consider are: Carex morowii ‘Ice Dance’ and  Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’.  

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