Yellow in the winter garden

Brighten winter’s palette with yellow ornamentals, evergreens, shrubs, and perennials
Mary Shelsby
Witch hazel

There’s nothing like seeing a burst of color in the garden on a gray winter day. A garden ablaze with golden- and lemony-yellow foliage, stems, and flowers is a sight worthy of cultivating when winter blankets Western New York.

Even snow can’t mute the power of yellow. As colors fade in your autumn garden, by selecting yellow ornamental conifers, broadleaf evergreens, deciduous shrubs, and perennials wisely, it’s possible to brighten the view from indoors during long winter months.

Many shrubs experience color changes with the seasons. Consider holding on to some of the color in the winter months with shrubs, evergreens, and plants bearing vibrant yellow, gold, and yellow-green foliage, like Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Lemon Twist’ and C. pisifera ‘Lemon Thread’.

‘Lemon Twist,’ a brightly colored globose evergreen with variegated yellow foliage, promises a warm yellow hue just as the snow falls. Its yellow-tipped green threadlike foliage displays brighter yellow and chartreuse highlights when planted in full sun. ‘Lemon Thread’ has a weeping quality to its lemon-lime foliage and is another shrub to select for heightened winter color.

Cornus 'Arctic Fire'

A slightly taller variety of C. pisifera (commonly referred to as false cypress) known for its yellow-tipped foliage is ‘Golden Mop’. Its wispy, string-like leaves color best in full sun. Slow growing and often paired with lavender or other violet-colored flowering shrubs during summer, ‘Golden Mop’ creates a mass of fresh spring-like yellow green in the winter garden.

Of all junipers to brighten your winter garden, Juniperus chinensis ‘Saybrook Gold’ is a hardy, deer-resistant shrub with a mounding, arching habit and brilliant winter color. A compact evergreen with ascending branches, this juniper will retain its color year-round. Sprawling, ground-hugging junipers that keep their yellow hue in winter include J. horizontalis ‘Gold Strike’ andMother Lode’ and J. x pfitzeriana ‘Golden Joy’, all wonderful additions to a winter garden.

Some varieties of arborvitae—hardy in this region—also feature yellow foliage. Bob Manning at Bristol’s Garden Center in Victor suggests Thuja occidentalis ‘Yellow Ribbon’ for its dense, golden-yellow foliage. For a slightly more burnt-gold foliage in winter and bright yellow-gold in early spring, ‘Fire Chief’ is his top pick.

Thuja plicata ‘Forever Goldy’, an arborvitae great for smaller spaces, is a golden form of western red cedar that stays yellow year-round. This columnar tree turns an even richer gold when temperatures fall below 40 degrees, becoming a bright beacon in cold, gray weather.

According to Cornell horticulturalist Emily Pratt, who maintains the Mullestein Winter Garden of Cornell Botanic Gardens in Ithaca, the key to retaining vibrant yellows in winter is thoughtful planting and care.

Ilex verticillata 'Berry Heavy'
A unique shrub with bright yellow stems in winter is yellow-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) ‘Bud’s Yellow’. Pratt prunes back the groupings of yellow-twig dogwood in the winter garden so the new stems will show a striking yellow color each winter. A small shrub native to North America and often found in wet woodlands, this dogwood reaches six feet in height and thrives in almost any type of soil.
 “The yellow-twig dogwoods here in the Mullestein Winter Garden were planted around 2001, but only their recent growth is visible because of how they’re pruned. To ensure vibrant color, I recommend coppicing, or cutting stems back to the ground, once every two to three years in winter or early spring,” says Pratt.
Another shrub with yellow stems is ‘Golden Curls’ willow (Salix erythroflexuosa). Its stems turn bright gold in winter when enhanced by periodic pruning. A multi-stemmed shrub or a tree, S. erthroflexuosa is a hybrid of white and corkscrew willow with year-round ornamental value. ‘Golden Curls’ makes a whimsical addition to any garden or yard with its brilliant yellow corkscrew branches that are also great for indoor floral arrangements.

If you’re looking for yellow fruit in the winter garden, Pratt suggests winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), a native North American shrub in two varieties, ‘Berry Heavy Gold,’ with bright gold fruit, and ‘Winter Gold,’ with warmer, gold-toned fruit. Both are bird friendly, add texture, and flourish in the dead of winter.

For subtle accents of yellow in the garden, try a variegated broadleaf evergreen such as Ilex x meserveae ‘Honey Maid’, a holly with a margin of yellow around glossy blue-green evergreen leaves. Buxus microphylla ‘Wedding Ring’, a compact boxwood variety with a pale-yellow margin on its leaves, is another splendid pick.

If you’re wondering if anything flowers in winter while retaining a lovely yellow hue, the answer is yes. Though limited, there are some fine examples of yellow flowers in winter.

Yellow-colored catkins are a bright feature perfect for the winter garden. Long, modified flowers that are pendulum shaped, catkins can be found on paper birch (Betula papyrifera) and ‘Heritage’ river birch (Betula nigra) trees, both native to North America.

The thin white bark of the paper birch is warmed by the tawny yellow of this tree’s catkins in late winter and early spring. The exfoliating bark of river birch in honey-rich tones also complements its catkins.

Be on the lookout for Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’), a multistemmed woody shrub with corkscrew-shaped branches, which begins to show pale-yellow catkins in early spring.

If you’re looking for winter flowers, behold the winter-blooming shrub witch hazel. This vase-shaped shrub or small tree has yellow blossoms in winter. In early winter, native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, shows pale yellow blooms; in late winter you’ll find the fragrant blossoms of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida.’

Additionally, fragrant hybrid witch hazel cultivars like Arnold Promise (Hamamelis x intermedia) exhibit wavy yellow petals on bare branches to provide blazing color in late winter. ‘Primavera’ (Hamamelis x intermedia), another witch hazel cultivar, with its ribbon-like crinkled, strap-shaped petals clustered along leafless branches, also flowers in February and March, according to Manning.

As for perennials, bluestar (Amsonia hubrichii), has outstanding ornamental value in the winter garden, turning brilliant golden yellow in late fall to early winter. Known for its fluffy, feathery texture, bluestar flourishes in northeastern gardens as a native North American plant.

If you’re a fan of the delicacy and mass of ornamental grasses as I am, you’ll love ‘Gold Bar’ maidengrass (Miscanthus sinensi) for its bicolor effect with bright horizontal yellow bands on the foliage. With a look of bamboo, its leaves grow upward and then cascade down to form a fountain-like effect. ‘Gold Bar’ turns shades of gold or bronze in autumn and holds up well through early winter.

However you choose to brighten your winter garden, yellows and golds promise spectacular color effects, enough to ward off the chill of winter, leaving gardeners content to sit and dream about the promise of an early spring.  


Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.


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