Southwest Regional Reports

Plants That Peak in Winter in the Southwest

Fine Gardening – Issue 203
Winter Jasmine 
Photo: David Salman

Richie Steffen, executive director of the Elisabeth C. Miller Garden in Seattle and a leading expert on plants, discusses the often-undervalued appeal of winter gardens:

“What many see as a dark and inhospitable season of dull dormancy, however, I view as a chillier continuation of my gardening season. There are many reliable plants that will tolerate, even look their best, during the frosty days of winter. While winter gardens may run short of blooms, especially in cold climates, there is a wonderful selection of evergreen foliage, interesting bark, and richly colored twigs that can make anyone’s winter brighter.”

To give winter even more of the love it deserves, we asked some regional experts to pick their favorite plants that peak in winter. Find fantastic plants for winter interest in the Southwest below, and discover even more plants that peak in winter in Richie’s article, Winter Interest From the Ground Up.


1. Toumey’s agave

Toumey’s agave 
Photo: David Salman

Name: Agave toumeyana subsp. bella

Zones: 5–9

Size: 4 to 6 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil 

Native range: Central Arizona  

This is a fascinatingly beautiful dwarf agave that grows in a matlike cluster of small rosettes. The leaves are striped with prominent white edges. Native to a few small areas around Payson, Arizona, this cold-hardy subspecies has proven itself to be an excellent choice for small gardens and containers. In winter when the plant is covered with some snow, its sculptural characteristics really stand out, giving you a whole new perspective on its beautiful shapes and forms. Toumey’s agave prefers sandy, rocky, or loam soil and grows well at all elevations. 


2. Western soapberry

Western soapberry
Photo: David Salman

Name: Sapindus drummondii

Zones: 6–9

Size: 20 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide

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

Native range: American Southwest and Mexico 

Western soapberry has large compound leaves with excellent yellow to golden fall color. Large grapelike clusters of translucent fruits vary in color from gold to dark brown and hang on the tree into winter. Transplant it as a young tree, because its long taproots resent being grown in a pot for very long. This plant is very drought tolerant and long lived once established. Because Western soapberry tolerates most soil types, including clay, and also grows well at both low and high elevations, it’s an excellent shade tree to grow in challenging situations. Just make sure to keep dogs and kids away from the berries, which are toxic. 


3. ‘Mary Potter’ crabapple

‘Mary Potter’ crabapple
Photo: David Salman

Name: Malus ‘Mary Potter’ 

Zones: 4–9

Size: 8 to 15 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide

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

Native range: Hybrid 

Modern ornamental crabapples are some of the best flowering trees. ‘Mary Potter’ is a top-rated weeping cultivar that perfumes the air in late spring with its large, nectar-rich white flowers. This makes it a honeybee favorite. The flowers are followed by small red fruits that hang on the tree through winter. But its weeping branches really stand out in the winter months when snow covers them, highlighting their graceful forms. Plant ‘Mary Potter’ where it has room to spread, preferably where you can view it through a window and enjoy its four seasons of ornamental interest. It tolerates most soil types, including clay, and should have afternoon shade in lower elevations.


4. Winter jasmine 

Winter Jasmine
Photo: David Salman

Name: Jasminum nudiflorum

Zones: 6–10

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

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

Native range: Northern China

This shrub has wonderful cascading growth and can weep over retaining walls, climb a fence with trellising, or act as a large ground cover on slopes. Deep yellow, nonfragrant flowers cover the plant in late winter or early spring. The evergreen stems give it additional winter interest. While winter jasmine tolerates low, mid, and high elevations, it should have some afternoon shade and supplemental irrigation if grown in a lower elevation. It tolerates most soil types, but not heavy clay. Otherwise, winter jasmine is a tough, drought-tolerant shrub that needs infrequent summer irrigation. 

David Salman is the founder of High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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