Southeast Regional Reports

10 Bold Plants for Winter Interest in the Southeast

This diverse mix of trees, shrubs, and perennials will keep your garden looking gorgeous from December through February

Plants that look good in winter
Pick plants that still have something going on in the dead of winter so that your garden looks good year-round.

Without a doubt one of the best parts about gardening in the Southeast is winters that are temperate yet still bring seasonality to the garden. I’m grateful that we don’t often get bone-chilling cold that lasts for days and weeks on end. Many gardeners in colder climates spend their winters waiting for spring. As gardeners in the Southeast, we can plan for vibrant gardens with winter interest in mind. For our purposes, we will define “winter” as December through February. For this article I will take you on a journey through the plants that are looking good in my winter garden in eastern Tennessee during these few months. I’ve made a note of the date I took the photo of each plant to give you a feeling of how the season progresses throughout my garden in the Southeast.

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Yucca gloriosa var. tristis ‘Hinvargas’, Zones 7-11
Yuccas like this Margaritaville™ curve-leaf yucca (Yucca gloriosa var. tristis ‘Hinvargas’, Zones 7-11) maintain their structure even when covered in snow.

Curve-leaf yucca

Name: Yucca gloriosa var. tristis syn. Yucca recurvifolia syn. Yucca gloriosa var. recurvifolia

Zones: 7-11

Size: 4 to 6 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

Photo Taken: December 25

Yuccas of all kinds bring structure to the winter garden. To me, curve-leaf yucca is one of the most graceful. It loves to be planted in full sun with good drainage. However, I don’t find it overly fussy. This plant can be long-lived and hard to remove, so make sure you place it exactly where you want it.

Delavay’s schefflera
Even in January, Delavay’s schefflera brings a tropical vibe to the garden.

Delavay’s schefflera

Name: Schefflera delavayi

Zones: 7-11

Size: 10 to 15 feet tall and 5 to 8 feet wide

Conditions: Partial shade; well-drained soil

Photo Taken: January 10

I get more excited about this plant every year. Delavay’s schefflera has large, broad, attractive leaves that are evergreen. In winter, seeds mature and cascade over the foliage. It seems to like being planted in afternoon shade.

Hellebores 'HGC’ Josef Lemper’
Turn to hellebores like ‘HGC Josef Lemper’ for beautiful blooms in the middle of winter.

‘HGC Josef Lemper’ hellebore

Name: Helleborus niger ‘HGC Josef Lemper’

Zones: 3–8

Size: 1 foot tall and 1 to 2 feet wide

Conditions: Partial shade; moist, well-drained soil

Photo Taken: January 16

Hellebores are an exciting group of plants for North American gardeners. They can be grown almost anywhere. What makes this species, Hellborus niger, and particularly this cultivar, ‘HGC Josef Lemper’ so special is how early and how long it blooms. Blooming as early as December, it puts on a show that lasts for several weeks. Flowers fade from clear white to chartreuse green.

Cyclamen coum
This cyclamen species has mottled leaves and pretty purple blooms.

Eastern sowbread

Name: Cyclamen coum

Zones: 5-8

Size: 3 to 6 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Partial shade; well-drained soil

Photo Taken: January 31

Gardeners in the Southeast can go down a long road of obsession for cyclamen, but not every species is well-suited for this region. My cyclamen-loving friends tell me ivy-leaved cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium, Zones 4-8) is the easiest to grow, but that one is a fall bloomer. If you want a winter gem, Eastern sowbread is at the top of my list. Plant tubers under deciduous trees. This plant is attractive in foliage and flower.

Iris reticulata ‘Pauline’, Zones 5-9
‘Pauline’ reticulated iris (Iris reticulata ‘Pauline’, Zones 5-9) has flowers that can range from blue to purple.

Reticulated iris

Name: Iris reticulata

Zones: 5-9

Size: 3 to 4 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

Photo Taken: February 9

Surprise! That’s how reticulated iris greets gardeners on a winter ramble. Plant it en masse on the edge of beds and enjoy its early blooms. This plant is perhaps not as long-lived as other fall-planted bulbs, so plant a few more every year. It pairs well with snowdrops (Galanthus spp. and cvs., Zones 3-9) for an early-season show.

Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'
Blue-colored conifers stand out in stark contrast against other trees in the off season.

Blue atlas cedar

Name: Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’

Zones: 6-9

Size: 40 to 60 feet tall and 30 to 40 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

Photo Taken: February 14

Conifers in general are the kings and queens of the winter garden. Conifers with blue foliage seem to impress even more in colder months. Blue atlas cedar is one of my favorites for its standout texture and color. In the Southeast, make sure you don’t plant this or other conifers too deeply to ensure good drainage. For my picks on other stand-out cedars for the Southeast, click here.

‘Jelena’ witch hazel
‘Jelena’ witch hazel offers hot-colored blooms in shades of yellow, red, and orange.

‘Jelena’ witch hazel

Name: Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

Zones: 5-8

Size: 15 to 20 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

Photo Taken: February 15

‘Jelena’ witch hazel is a top shrub for those looking to add more winter interest to their gardens. It performs well in the understory or in more sun with adequate moisture. This cultivar does a good job of shedding its leaves in the fall so flowers are even more noticeable during their winter bloom.

Forsythia spp. and cvs., Zones 3-9)
Japanese cornel dogwood’s abundant little yellow flowers make this tree look like forsythia (Forsythia spp. and cvs., Zones 3-9) when in full bloom.

Japanese cornel dogwood

Name: Cornus officinalis

Zones: 5-8

Size: 15 to 25 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; medium moisture, well-drained soil

Photo Taken: February 17

If you love dogwoods, you need to add this little-known beauty to your list. Exfoliating bark shines in the winter sun and its extraordinarily early blooms are delightful. These flowers will yield to bright red berries late in the season. This plant is virtually disease and pest free.

Parney cotoneaster
Parney cotoneaster’s bright red fruits contrast well with its dark olive-green leaves.

Parney cotoneaster

Name: Cotoneaster lacteus syn. Cotoneaster coriaceus syn. Cotoneaster parneyi

Zones: 6-9

Size: 6 to 8 feet tall and 6 to 12 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

Photo Taken: February 17

If there is a cotoneaster that has more fruit per square inch than this one, I don’t know it! Parney cotoneaster is a loose, open shrub with beautiful foliage and arching stems during the season. In fall, long-lasting fruit develops and persists for an extended period. This Asian species has been known to escape the confines of cultivation in California, but I have not seen this same issue in the Southeast. It would make an outstanding loose hedge that will give you flowers in the spring and a fruit display in fall and winter.


Japanese spirea
This sterile variety of Japanese spirea has foliage that emerges cherry red and then transitions to yellow and orange.

Double Play® Candy Corn® Japanese spirea

Name: Spiraea japonica ‘NCSX1’

Zones: 4-8

Size: 1 to 1½ feet tall and 1½ to 2½ feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil

Photo Taken: February 18

This is a smaller spirea that has one of its best moments in late winter. Frost tolerant new foliage emerges bright red when there is still plenty of cold in the air. Later in the season, the foliage transitions to hues of gold and orange. The pink flowers are sterile, which alleviates concerns about invasiveness and gives the plant itself even more energy to put on fabulous displays of foliage.


Try any one of these plants to add winter interest to your garden. Better yet, plant them all to keep the show rolling through December, January, and February.


For even more on winter interest in the Southeast, check out:


And for more Southeast regional reports, click here.


Andy Pulte is a faculty member in the plant sciences department at the University of Tennessee.

Photos: Andy Pulte

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