`Winter interest' perennials weather the cold

October 28, 2006|By Anne Farrow | Anne Farrow,HARTFORD COURANT

What looks good in snow? Many perennials have what gardeners identify as "winter interest," because their stems turn a lovely color or the seed head dries on the stem and stays. Some plants need to be cut back so that future growth is protected, but these "winter interest" candidates are not harmed by carrying that interesting dried pod or leaf into cold weather.

"Grasses!" says Dawn Pettinelli when asked for recommendations. Among favorites mentioned by the extension educator at the University of Connecticut Home & Garden Education Center are varieties of Miscanthus sinensis, especially "Flame grass," which has pinkish plumes and reddish stems. "Morning Light" also has reddish plumes, and wheat-colored stems that wave gracefully in the winter winds. And then there's "Zebra grass," 8 feet tall, with stripes of a buff yellow.

Other perennials that weather the winter in handsome fashion are Sedum "Autumn Joy," whose magenta, broccoli-like flowers and fleshy green stems turn a soft, rusty color and will hang on in the garden through at least a snowfall or two. The leaves and stems of Platycodon, better known as balloon flower, turn a brilliant yellow, and purple coneflower may lose its petals, but its green stems turn a rich brown, and the seed head, which is as bristly as a teasel, will last until the snowdrops come up.

Greenish-gray Artemisia, one of the classic herbs for drying, has silvery seedpods and is beautiful in the snowy garden, as are members of the rudbeckia family, the daisy group that includes the black-eyed Susan. They'll keep their button-like black seed heads well into winter.

Pettinelli is especially fond of a perennial flower called Boneset, or, less commonly, Eupatorium. In Colonial times, it was believed to have medicinal uses and has a grayish-white flower and leaves, dries easily and smells good -- "like acorns and grass," she says.

She's also partial to Asclepia incarnata, a member of the milkweed family that's smaller than the familiar milkweed that grows wild in fields. Well into winter, she says, asclepia "keeps its seedpods, which look like upside-down canaries."

Whether you run out of time and don't get your garden tidied up or simply prefer seeing the last cycle of plantings that will return in the spring, there are environmental advantages to letting some flowers dry on their stems. Garden writer Carol Stocker points out that the uncut garden provides cover and food for birds during harsh weather.

Pettinelli recommends tidying up and cutting back the plantings in the early spring before they begin making their new growth -- "As soon as the snow is off the ground, and you can get out there without sinking down in the mud," she says.

Anne Farrow writes for the Hartford Courant.

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