We had our first hard freeze over a month ago. Most of the deciduous plants and perennials in my yard are now dormant—some with dry brown leaves still attached, others with bare stems. But remarkably, not everything looks dead. In fact, a surprising number of plants still sport green foliage.
I’ve often chosen or rejected a plant for my garden based on when it leafs out in the spring. Too early and the tender new leaves are withered by a late snow. Too late, and half the season is gone before the yard looks complete. But I never considered the other end of the season—how long will the plant stay green before going to sleep for the winter?
I’m not talking about fall color. My grasses, Little Bluestem in particular (right), still look terrific in their autumn hues. And I won’t list the evergreens—conifers and others, such as Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens), that are supposed to look alive all winter. The plants that follow might look a bit worn, and the flowers are long gone, but their leaves are still green in spite of freezing weather and several snowstorms. (The photos were taken during the growing season. The leaves might be green, but the plants still look prettier in bloom!)
Coralberry ‘Hancock.’ After two winters, we realized that the mahonias in our north-facing front yard weren’t tough enough for that exposed site. Two of the five had died, windblasted to shredded twigs. The rest struggled. We needed a replacement, and I picked coralberry, Symphoricarpos × chenaultii ‘Hancock.’ Closely related to snowberries, these spreading shrubs have tiny leaves that grow opposite one another on horizontal branches, and berries that are a lovely coral color instead of white. ‘Hancock’ is a particularly low-growing cultivar, 12 to 18 inches tall, exactly what we needed next to our front door. I had originally selected the mahonias because of their evergreen foliage, and I’m delighted that our new coralberries are still pretty and green in mid-November.
Catmint. This is a big surprise. We have a number of large catmints (Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’), chosen largely because they’re fast-growing and we had a lot of bare yard to cover. I never sheared off the spent blooms at the end of the summer, so they’re a bit bedraggled, but the leaves on these tough perennials are still their summer gray-green color. (They’d look even better if I got out there and deadheaded.) I know these leathery leaves will eventually turn gray and crumble, but discovering that they’re hanging around this late in the season just adds one more reason to love catmint.
Penstemons. Many penstemons stay green all winter, especially the low-growing types that have flower stems rising from dense mats of basal leaves. But even those that eventually do dry up and turn brown wait until mid-winter to do so. Maybe they’re hoping that the season will be a mild one, or maybe they just can’t believe I’d plant them in such an inhospitable spot, and they’re hoping things will improve! In any case, I’m glad they wait. I’ve removed the unattractive dried flower stalks and seed heads (sprinkling the seeds where I hope they’re naturalize), and I’m left with a tidy clump of green leaves. Nice.
Sun Daisies. I’m used to seeing Osteospermum daisies in mild climates but I’d never realized how cold hardy some of the cultivars can be—down to zone 4! So two summers ago I planted a swath of O. ‘Avalanche’ and another, purple, cultivar next to our sidewalk in hopes that the plants would fill in and cover the mulch. I was a bit disappointed—they disappeared with the onset of winter and took forever to come back the next spring. By the time the first green leaf sprouted, I had given them up for dead and was deciding what else to try in that spot. But now, as I look out my window, I see leaves that are still green, even this late in the year. I’m sufficiently impressed that I’m willing to give them another year. Maybe they’re just slow to establish. We’ll see.
Rose Campion. I had an empty spot to fill, and there they were at the garden center, so I decided to try something new. I’m so glad I did. They haven’t even bloomed yet, and I’m smitten—the rose campions (Lychnis coronaria) I planted last summer are still as healthy as they were in August. (Photo at top of page.)
Rosa ‘Nearly Wild.’ This one really surprised me. I assumed that my roses would drop their leaves with the first hard freeze, but here they are, green as ever. Add in the rose hips, and they look pretty darn good for late November.
As I walk the neighborhood, I’m noticing even more plants that are hanging onto their leaves, stalwart in the face of approaching winter. I love their attitude—they’re an inspiration!—and the next time I’m choosing plants, I’ll be sure to add this resilliance to my list of desired traits.