Conifers that change color in winter for added interest.



The garden is always changing. As gardeners, we notice a lot about the visual changes that occur in the landscape each day, week, month, and throughout the seasons. We understandably love to see the growth of flowers, colorful foliage, and other exciting changes from spring to summer to fall. While most of these garden changes are recognized and celebrated, those that winter in the Midwest are often overlooked and certainly underappreciated, but there are many conifers that Colors change in winter.

When discussing color and interest during the long winter months in our Midwestern gardens, we usually focus on colorful stems, ornamental bark, textured grasses, ornamental fruits, and most importantly, conifers. While many conifers contribute consistent color throughout the year, there are some that become increasingly interesting and noticeable in the winter. Cold weather encourages a change of color that puts these distinctive conifers front and center. In some instances, these “colored chameleons” become hot focal points in a desolate landscape that provide the perfect foil for these unusual colors. Here are just a few to consider for your garden.

Eastern red cedar
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus Virginia)

Eastern red cedar produces an excellent bronze color in its northern range.

Our native eastern red cedar (Juniperus Virginia and cvs., zones 2-9) is a workhorse in the landscape and the most widespread native conifer for a reason. Many cultivated varieties are available with a surprisingly wide range of varieties and plant colors ranging from 30 to 65 feet tall and 8 to 25 feet wide. The erect species is known to transition to annual vegetation during the cold winter months in its northern range. The blue-green, scale-like foliage takes on a striking reddish-brown (bronze) color during the duller time of year. Not all varieties of this sun-loving conifer exhibit deep seasonal color, but some degree of “winter bronze” is common to most.

Russian arborvitae
Russian arborvitae (Microbiota Dexta)

Russian arborvitae is an advanced low-growing conifer with deer resistance.

I have long been familiar with this feathery, layered conifer, which is an excellent choice for a ground cover that is low and spreading. But especially during the coldest months of the year, Russian arborvitae (Microbiota Dexta and cvs., zones 2–7) never ceases to amaze me with its attractive texture and winter color change from green to coppery bronze. It is truly a welcome sight in Midwestern winter landscapes, growing 6 to 18 inches tall and 3 to 12 feet wide. Full sun to partial shade and good drainage are essential to establishing this conifer, but additional traits of merit include insect, disease and deer resistance.

Carstenes muego pine
‘Carstens’ Mogo Pine (Pinus mugo ‘Carstenes’).

‘Carstens’ mugo pine provides excellent cool-season color in a compact form.

‘Carstens’ Mogo Pine (Pinus mugo ‘Carstenes’, syn. P. Mogo ‘Carsten’s Wintergold’, zones 2–7) is a personal favorite of mine with its compact, globose, and slow-growing form that grows to 3 feet tall and wide over time. I have grown this variety for over 20 years and love seeing the green needle foliage in the summer turn yellow in the fall and then gold in the winter. The intensity of winter color is more pronounced in cold years. Well-drained soil is essential for this durable full-sun cone. A variety of ‘Winter Sun’ (Pinus mugo ‘winter sun’, syn. P. Mogo ‘Winterson’, zones 2-7) is another good one to look for.

Eastern white pine winter gold on hillside
‘Hillside Winter Gold’ Eastern white pine (Pinus strobes ‘Hillside Winter Gold’).

‘Hillside Winter Gold’ shines as an eastern white pine winter specimen.

‘Hillside Winter Gold’ Eastern white pine (Pinus strobes ‘Hillside Winter Gold’, zones 3–8) is an interesting selection of our native white pine. It undergoes an extreme transition of yellow needles in the fall when temperatures drop, and the transition continues to golden yellow in the deep cold of winter. The fine texture of this pine is prized year-round. Some degree of winter shade is recommended on this specimen to minimize needle burn, but regardless, this variety looks great as a bright light in a visually passive landscape. reads and in time will be a full-sized sample. When placed in full sun to part shade and well-drained soil, small-planted specimens reach 12 to 15 feet tall in 10 years or more but eventually reach 30 to 70 feet tall and 15 will be 30 feet wide.

Watt's Golden Virginia Pine
‘Wet’s Golden’ Virginia Pine (Pinus virginia ‘Wate’s Golden’).

‘Wate’s Golden’ Virginia pine has a large irregular shape and golden color.

If you have quirky taste in plants and are looking for something a little unusual, ‘What’s Golden’ Virginia Pine (Pinus virginia ‘Weitz Golden’, Zones 4–8) has an irregular, open and slightly pyramidal habit that eventually grows to 15 to 30 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide. While some have described its appearance as hideous, the two specimens I usually observe are of very fine character. The leaves are chartreuse when emerging but quickly turn more yellow in late fall and turn a brilliant gold in the cold winter. Although ‘What’s Golden’ needs full sun, be careful of needle burn from winter winds. Place it in a place where it is protected from north and west winds.

Mark Dwyer is the Garden Manager of the Edgerton Hospital Healing Garden in Edgerton, Wisconsin and runs Landscape Prescriptions through MD.

Photo: Mark Dwyer



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