After the flowers are gone and the leaves have fallen from the trees, other plant characteristics, not noticed or even available to the summer garden, begin to emerge. One such plant quality is the seed head or seed pod which can droop from a tree limb or sway atop ornamental grass.
Both the thornless honey locust (Gledetsia tricanthos) and the catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) trees produce wonderful foot long seed pods which hang from their branches throughout the winter months.
Shining or winged sumac, (Rhus copallinum) produces clusters of red fruit in September and October which then turn to lovely dried clusters over winter which provide food to wildlife. Its glossy green summer foliage turns bright red in fall. The crimson colored fruit clusters of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) also attracts birds and stand in stark contrast to the barren winter landscape.
Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) produces green prickly round seed pods in the summer which mature to hard brown shells which hang down from long stalks during the winter. Each seed pod will eventually open to reveal up to 50 winged seeds which attract birds and other wildlife.
A late blooming shrub which has retains wonderful qualities through the winter months is the hydrangea (Hydrangea sp.). Most varieties of this very popular colorful shrub form long lasting flowers which remain attractive long after they've peaked. Rather than deadheading hydrangeas after they bloom, allow the flowers to dry naturally and brighten up the winter landscape. The flowers which remain on the shrub through the winter will fade to a faint brown, light blue or pale white.
The Japanese Anemone is a late-summer blooming perennial. In the winter, however, the seed heads unfold into white cotton ball-like puffs. This herbaceous plant grows 2’ tall but the flower stalks come another 2’ above the bulk of the plant creating a unique look. Some varieties self-sow freely so be prepared for the possibility of volunteer plants.
Late blooming perennials such as the Coneflowers (Rudbeckia spp. and Echinacea spp.) have beautiful dried seed heads in the winter. Allowed to dry, their colorful summer and fall flowers turn shades of brown and stand in contrast to winter snow.
Some of the best plants for the winter garden include ornamental grasses. Most produce interesting seed heads in late fall that can be left standing through the winter months. Instead of pruning them short in the fall, wait until the spring just before new growth begins.