Select trees and shrubs that capture the imagination year-round. Here's a look at 10 structural plants that sport fascinating features like peeling bark and twisty silhouettes to colorful flowers and bird-nourishing berries.
(Malus spp., Zones 3 to 8)
Nothing says spring has sprung better than a flowering crabapple tree. Brightly hued buds give way to single, semi-double and double white, peach, red or purplish fragrant flowers beginning in April (flowering times vary by cultivar and location) that bloom for up to two weeks. Depending on variety, trees grow to 10 to 25 feet tall and wide and produce 1/4- to 2-inch red, orange, yellow or purple fruits that draw bevies of birds. To extend the show and accommodate overwintering birds, select disease-resistant varieties that hold their fruit into late winter. Crabapples do best when planted in full sun and moist average soil.
(Acer griseum, Zones 5 to 8)
This tree has it all. Even without its soft green leaves, which turn scarlet come frost, the paperbark maple is a year-round charmer with peeling, cinnamon-hued bark that reveals attractive bare patches underneath. The slow-growing, sun-loving trees, which can reach 25 feet in height and 20 feet in width, boast pleasing, rounded canopies and open-branched structures. Trees produce bluish-green foliage and yellowish-green flowers in spring; the flowers give way to "whirlybird" seedpods in June.
(Cornus sericea, Zones 2 to 7)
Lovely throughout the year, the redosier dogwood is most valued for its vaselike shape and bright-red stems that set winter landscapes aflame. Plants also produce froths of white blooms in spring, clusters of blue-tinted white berries and fluttering green leaves that turn purplish to reddish in fall. The fast-growing deciduous shrub tolerates moist soil and shade and grows to 10 feet tall and wide. Left alone, a shrub will grow to 15 feet or more. The distinctive red bark appears on younger growth, so if you want to see red in winter, perform regular renewal pruning or cut some of the older stems back to ground level.
Harry Lauder's Walking Stick
(Corylus avellana 'Contorta,' Zones 4 to 8)
Plant this as a specimen and stand back and marvel at its contorted, twisted branches. Considered a deciduous shrub, the sun-loving plant takes on a treelike form and grows to 8 to 10 feet tall and wide. It produces yellowish-green catkins in late winter or early spring, with leaves that turn yellow in fall. The slow-growing plants are well suited to large containers.
(Cercis Canadensis, Zones 4 to 9)
As winter fades and before spring leaves appear, rosy-pink buds open to abundant pinkish-purple flowers. These sun-loving native plants are moderate growers that reach 30 feet tall and 25 to 35 feet wide. Happily, there are compact hybrids, such as Lavender Twist, which stops at 10 to 12 feet tall and wide. The hybrid Hearts of Gold redbud is another moderate grower, producing red leaves that turn gold as they mature. In fall, redbud foliage changes to shimmering yellow.
American Cranberry Viburnum
(Viburnum trilobum, Zones 2 to 7)
These native shrubs are a boon to both gardeners and wildlife. Growing to 8 to 10 feet tall and wide, the upright, rounded shrubs have arching branches whose flat-topped, 4-inch clusters of white flowers draw bees and butterflies starting in May. Abundant red berries appear in summer and persist into late winter, providing food for birds. New leaves boast a reddish cast before turning green and then yellow purplish-red come autumn. Plants do best in sun to partial shade and moist, well-drained soil.
Smoke Bush or Smoke Tree
(Cotinus coggygria, Zones 4 to 9)
Give this deciduous shrub plenty of room to shine. In late spring and early summer, plants produce airy puffs of 6- to 8-inch cream-colored panicles that deepen to purplish-pink by September. Depending on cultivar, foliage is green, bluish-green, lime-green or deep-purple. Plants grow between 10 and 15 feet tall and nearly as wide, with open, shrubby silhouettes. Drought-tolerant, smoke bush prefers full sun but is not particular about soil.
(Hamamelis x intermedia, Zones 5 to 9)
Just when you think winter will never end, the hybrid witchhazel shrubs explode with masses of fragrant ribbon-petal flowers in yellow, copper or red. Depending on cultivar and location, this deciduous shrub may blossom as early as January and hold its blooms into March. Its spreading, open branches grow to 20 feet tall and wide. This easy-grow plant does well in average, well-drained soils and sun to partial shade. Gray-green leaves turn yellow-orange with frost.
(Betula papyrifera, zones 2 to 6)
Though attractive year-round, this tree is at its peak during cool weather. The leaves turn a magnificent yellow in autumn, and the white bark looks lovely against a winter backdrop of evergreens. Homeowners prize it for its "northwoods look," and some make it a focal point in their Christmas displays, shining a spotlight on the distinctive, peeling bark.
In spring, branches produce bright-green leaves and pendulous catkins. The quick-growing trees are known to stand up to deer; the leaves turn a blazing yellow come autumn.
(Ilex verticillata, Zones 3 to 9)
Use winterberry shrubs to add cheerful splashes of scarlet to snowy landscapes. This native deciduous holly produces tiny, greenish-white flowers in spring and vibrant red berries in early fall; the berries last through winter. In summer, the rounded, upright shrubs sport shiny green leaves, making winterberry a good choice for privacy hedges and foundation beds. Depending on the cultivar, these hollies grow between 3 and 12 feet high and wide. Plants prefer sun to partial shade and moist, organically enriched soil. Since they reproduce dioeciously, plant at least one male for every four to six female plants.