Perennials with Winter Interest

Care and How To

An attractive landscape requires careful planning for seasonal interest throughout the year. Since the Iowa landscape is dormant for about four months of the year, extending the attractiveness of the landscape and garden into the winter can help make the season a little more bearable. Winter gardening doesn't use the flowers and fragrances of summer gardening. Instead, various plants are used to add shape, color, and texture to create eye-catching displays.  Many herbaceous perennials can be used to create interesting landscapes, even in winter!

garden with frost By LianeM AdobeStock_268456824
Perennial gardens can be beautiful and interesting, even in winter.  Photo by LianeM/AdobeStock


List of Perennials with Winter Interest  |  More Information


Colorful Foliage

Many herbaceous perennials have interesting winter appeal. Not all perennials die to the ground.  Perennials with evergreen or semi-evergreen foliage can add color to an otherwise brown or white landscape.  Pig squeak, or bergenia, turns maroon with the onset of cold temperatures. The foliage of grape hyacinth emerges late in the season and persists through winter. Perennials like Achillea overwinter with a rosette of foliage close to the ground. Lavender, thyme, and other herbs hold their foliage late in the season. Yucca plants possess a unique character, especially after a snowfall.

Persistent Seedheads

Purple coneflower heads with snow By Nancy J Ondra AdobeStock_480443725
Coneflowers have a cone-shaped seed head that provides food for birds and looks beautiful through the winter months.  Photo by Nancy J Ondra/AdobeStock

Other perennials are grown for their attractive seedheads in winter.  Many ornamental grasses, like switchgrass, miscanthus, and northern sea oats, hold on to their interesting plumes much of the winter, providing height and movement in the wind.  Other perennials hold on to colorful and large seedpods.  The large black pea-like pod of false indigo, or baptisia, rattles in the wind. The dried flowerheads and stems of perennials like coneflower, Joe Pye weed, upright sedum, yarrow, Culver’s root, bee balm, and rattlesnake master also stand out in winter.  

Interesting Forms

Other perennials stand tall through the winter, and their forms and outlines add height and interest to the otherwise stark and flat winter landscape. Many also provide protection and food for birds and other wildlife.  Ornamental grasses like feather-reed grass, giant miscanthus, and switchgrass stand tall even through heavy snow. 

Winter Blooms

A few perennials will even flower in winter.  Most notably, lenten roses, or hellebores, open colorful flowers in pinks, purples, whites, and greens in February and March.  Other early spring-blooming bulbs like winter aconite and snowdrops often open even with snow on the ground.  Make sure to position these perennials near the sidewalk or door so they can be appreciated without venturing deep into the garden.

Hellebore in snow By meegi AdobeStock_578342724
Some perennials, such as lenten rose (Hellebore), bloom in winter.  Photo by meegi/AdobeStock


Perennials with Winter Interest

Below is a list of perennials that have notable interest during the winter.  Consider adding these perennials to the garden for interest year-round.

Colorful Evergreen or Semi-Evergreen Foliage

  • bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
  • European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum)
  • pig squeak (Bergenia spp.)
  • barrenwort (Epimedium spp.)
  • sea thrift (Armeria maritima)
  • basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis)
  • snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum)
  • coral bells (Heuchera spp.)
  • candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)
  • moss phlox (Phlox subulata)
  • lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.)
  • lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina)
  • foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia)
  • marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis)
  • Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
  • ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron)
  • yarrow (Achillea spp.)
  • thyme (Thymus spp.)
  • lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)
  • English ivy (Hedera helix)
  • periwinkle (Vinca minor
  • Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis)
  • Adam's needle (Yucca filamentosa)
  • hen and chicks (Sempervivum spp.)
  • stonecrop (Sedum spp.)
  • pinks (Dianthus spp.)
  • rock cress (Arabis caucasica)
  • dwarf blue fescue (Festuca spp.)
  • Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum × superbum)
  • globe thistle (Echinops spp.) 

Culvers root in winter garden By Nancy J Ondra AdobeStock_480611667
Several perennials, like Culver's root, have intersting seed heads all winter. Photo by Nancy J Ondra/AdobeStock

Persistent Seedheads or Pods

  • false indigo (Baptisia spp.)
  • purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • feather reed grass (Calamagrostis × acutifora)
  • northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
  • Japanese silvergrass (Miscanthus sinensis)
  • Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha)
  • wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
  • peony (Paeonia spp.)
  • iris (Iris spp.)
  • bee balm (Monarda spp)
  • coneflowers (Rudbeckia spp.)
  • rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
  • Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium spp)
  • upright sedum (Hylotelephium spp.)
  • Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
  • Carolina lupine (Thermopsis villosa)

Interesting Forms

  • little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
  • Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
  • prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
  • giant miscanthus (Miscanthus ‘Giganteus’)
  • switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
  • blue oatgrass (Helictotrichon sempervirens)
  • purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea)
  • side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula)
  • tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa)
  • purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis)
  • Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola')
  • Ravenna grass (Saccharum ravennae, syn. Erianthus ravennae

Ornamental grasses in snow
Some perennials, including many ornamental grasses are great additions to the winter garden.

Winter Blooms

  • lenten rose (Helleborus spp.)
  • snowdrops (Galanthus spp.)
  • spring crocuses (Crocus  spp.)
  • winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Trees and Shrubs for the Winter Landscape

Don't forget, the winter garden isn't complete without woody plants.  Evergreen trees and shrubs with various shades of greens and blues and interesting shapes are staples of many winter landscapes. Deciduous trees with interesting bark characteristics, like paperbark maple, or unusual branching habits, like pagoda dogwood, can also aid in providing winter charm. Many trees and shrubs have persistent fruit that looks attractive in winter and attracts birds and other wildlife. 

More resources about these great woody plants for the winter landscape can be found in these articles: 


More Information

Authors: 

Aaron Steil Consumer Horticulture Extension Specialist

Aaron Steil is the consumer horticulture extension specialist at Iowa State University where he works with county Extension offices across the state to answer home gardening questions for all Iowans.  This includes information related to trees, shrubs, vegetables, fruits, herbs, perennials, ...

Last Reviewed: 
January, 2024