Colorful plants for winter

Published 4:26 pm Tuesday, January 29, 2019

When you think of a winter landscape, colorful is probably not the first word that comes to mind. However, there are some plants that provide a pop of color even in the winter months. The plants and vegetation listed below are native to the Piedmont region of Virginia, which means they are well-suited to the climate and soils here. They generally require less watering and maintenance once they are established, and many of them provide food and shelter for wildlife.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a perennial deciduous holly species that displays red berries that provide an important food source for wildlife in the winter. According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, “The attractive bright red fruit of winterberry is eaten by small mammals and more than 48 species of birds.” (Plant Fact Sheet) Keep in mind that while the berries are good for wildlife, they are poisonous for human consumption. In order for the winterberry to produce its red fruit, male and female plants are needed for cross pollination. The plants range from 5-15 feet tall and prefer moist soil and sunny to partly-shady conditions.

American holly (Ilex opaca), like winterberry, is an evergreen holly that produces red berries in the winter. Similarly, male and female trees are needed for cross pollination and berry production. The berries attract at least 18 species of birds, and the tree is an important habitat for songbirds as well as 34 species of native caterpillars. (Piedmont Native Plants Guide) The tree is larger than the winterberry, reaching heights from 20-40 feet. It favors moist to dry soil and sunny to partly-shady locations.

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River birch (Betula nigra) is a tree with beautiful, layered bark that exfoliates in paper-like layers, which provides interest in the winter. It is also provides a home to 413 species of native caterpillars, according to the Piedmont Native Plants Guide. The tree thrives in moist and wet soil, which makes it good for stormwater and erosion control as the roots act like a sponge to absorb water. River birch reaches 40-70 feet in height and prefers sunny conditions.

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginia) is an aromatic juniper tree. On female trees, the seed cones resemble blue berries, which provide food to over 50 species of birds, according to an article by Virginia Cooperative Extension. (“For the Birds, Butterflies & Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats”) The foliage provides a nesting site for wildlife, and the wood is naturally resistant to rot and insects. This tree grows 40-60 feet tall and favors moist to dry soil and a sunny habitat.

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is an evergreen fern that gets its name from once being a common Christmas decoration. Because the plant stays green, it will provide color in an otherwise brown winter landscape. This fern tends to grow in clumps, and it tolerates moist to dry soil and partly-sunny to shady locations.

When planting this spring or fall, consider incorporating Virginia native plants that will provide color and interest next winter, as well as food and shelter for wildlife. For more information, visit the Virginia Native Plant Society website at

EMILY GIBBS is the Residential Conservation and Marketing Coordinator at Piedmont Soil & Water Conservation. You can contact her at (434) 392-3782 ext. 131 or visit