Growing wintergreen perennials

Heuchera Obsidian
Illustrated by the deep purple Heuchera Obsidian, not all wintergreens are green
Image source: Chris Hill

Wintergreens, or evergreen perennials, are a valuable group of perennial plants that add texture, shape and colour to our borders during the dark days of winter, long after the flower-filled days of summer are over. These plants have so much more to offer to our gardens than their flowers because they don’t die back in winter like herbaceous perennials.

‘Wintergreens’ are not necessarily green, despite what their name suggests. Think glaucous blues, silvery greys, sumptuous deep purples, uplifting yellows, gentle tracings of pale variegation, and glowing red-edged foliage. The palette is surprisingly varied, so winter borders need never be dull.

Where to plant Wintergreen perennials

silvery leaf
The silver-leaved Senecio Candicans withstands extreme cold and full sun.
Image source: Van Meuwen

Wintergreens are incredibly hard-working plants, and they earn their place in the garden. Their foliage brightens borders, offers shelter to wildlife, protects the soil, and helps to suppress weeds.

Wintergreen plants aren’t guaranteed to be evergreen. The leaves of the gentian blue showstopper Scilla peruviana die back after spring flowering and re-emerge in late summer or early autumn to add fresh green foliage to the winter border.

There are wintergreen plants suited to sun, shade, and container growing, so no garden need be without wonderful wintergreens.

In shaded areas, combine ferns such as Asplenium scolopendrium and Polypodium vulgare to create a textural display.

When planting in full sun, try low-growing Phlox subulata. The large leaved, silvery Senecio candicans ‘Angel Wings’ (‘Senaw’) impresses for a fuller display, and is hardy down to -8C, so survives extreme winters.

Window boxes and containers need not stand empty in winter. Plant tiny Armeria maritima ‘Alba’, Sisyrinchium ‘California Skies’, or allow x Heucherella ‘Plum Cascade’ to trail over the edge.

Which wintergreen perennials should you grow

bluegrass
Festuca Glauca is a stunning blue-grey grass that sings in a winter border
Image source: Van Meuwen

Combinations of different foliage shapes create a dramatic display. Try planting mixtures of interesting textures and colour that contrast well with one another. It’s hard to beat furry silver Stachys byzantina mingling with dark ribbons of Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, or the deep burgundy leaves of Heuchera ‘Chocolate Ruffles’.

Grow waxy blue-grey leaved Euphorbia myrsinites with the soft green foliage of Aubrieta ‘Axcent Deep Purple’ (‘Audelpur’) for gentler colours. This intensifies in spring when the lime green Euphorbia flowers contrast with the rich purple blooms of Aubrieta.

Design borders that give a year-round display that adapts to the seasons. The transformation from gently mingling winter foliage to vibrant spring hues gives you the feeling of a newly planted garden, without the hard work. Plant Bergenia ‘Beethoven’ for foliage colour that alters with the seasons from summer green to deepest plum.

Plant Sisyrinchium ‘Biscutella’ for its intriguing cream and brown summer flowers, and in winter its grassy green foliage with a plum-coloured base makes a valuable addition to borders and containers.

Some wintergreen plants flower during winter and early spring, which is an added bonus. Cut back the foliage on Helleborus x hybridus to see its delicate nodding blooms more clearly. The flowers of Helleborus foetidus stand proud of its handsome divided foliage, so leaves may be left to add texture to the winter display. Plant with the red-edged heart-shaped leaves of Epimedium perralderianum for contrast.

Grass-type foliage can be used to great effect in winter. Use plants with a grass-like quality to their leaves such as Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea’ and Libertia peregrinans which glow in the winter border, or Festuca glauca for gentle blue-grey.

How to make the most of your winter perennials

stinking hellebore
Helleborus Foetida combines handsome flowers and textured leaves for a bonus display
Image source: Simona Pavan

While wintergreen perennials are beautiful when they’re touched with a light frost or sprinkling of snow, they’re not invincible. Avoid planting them in frost pockets or exposed places where they may be damaged by winter winds.

Plant your wintergreens where you can easily admire their mingling textures and colours. The border I look out onto when I sit at my kitchen table is made up of wintergreens underplanted with bulbs that push between the foliage and change the display as the seasons ease from winter to spring.

Designing with Wintergreens

Looking for specific colours? Let this table be your guide.

Red Foliage Bergenia ‘Abendglocken’ Heuchera ‘Winter Red’ Tellima grandiflora ‘Rubra Group’
Silver Foliage Pulmonaria ‘Diana Clare’ Senecio candicans ‘Angel Wings’ Stachys byzantina
Glaucous Foliage Euphorbia myrsinites Festuca glauca
Variegated Foliage Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’ Saxifraga x urbium ‘Variegata’
Yellow/Orange Foliage Libertia peregrinans Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea’
Purple/Bronze Foliage Ajuga reptans ‘Atropuropurea’ Bergenia ‘Beethoven’ Heuchera ‘Chocolate Ruffles’
Green Foliage Asplenium scolopendrium Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’ Saxifraga x urbium
Sarah Shoesmith

Author: Sarah Shoesmith

Sarah Shoesmith was awarded the Centenary Prize by the Royal Horticultural Society in 2003, and gained a Distinction in the Diploma in Garden Design from The English Gardening School. She is passionate about gardening for wildlife and growing food, and writes about gardening for magazines and other sites.

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