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Creating winter beauty with native plants

Bark. Berries. Birds.  These are the elements that catch the eye and spark the imagination as you gaze out of the window on a wintry day, or push your way through the snow to check that all is well in the far-flung corners of your backyard empire. 

Habitat. Food. Life.  That’s how a bird views your space. The backyard is so much more than an outdoor room, it’s a world where complex dynamics play out. The blue blur of a jay swooping in for a peanut, a couple of goldfinches executing an aerial pas de deux, a Cooper’s Hawk smashing into the snow to grab a mourning dove, a Downy Woodpecker hammering the life out of a dying tree (no, it’s not the woodpecker killing the tree, it’s the insect life within that has done that)… Such are the moments that truly add winter interest to the scene framed by the beauty of bark and berries.   

By virtue of the ease with which they can soar away, birds offer us our most intimate connection to the natural world.  For birds, you need trees, and of all the trees you can choose, those that are native to our area offer the optimum in terms of the shelter and sustenance our birds need. Better yet, native trees flourish in our harsh conditions. They need cold temperatures and deep snow to remain in good health; and native trees, planted in the right spot, require no protection to get through the winter. That’s good news, because burlap does not enhance a landscape.

Evergreens provide shelter and sustenance for birds and many other creatures. If you have room, plant a windbreak of White Spruce (Picea glauca). Mix in some Balsam Fir (Abies balsamia) and the odd White Pine (Pinus strobus) for variety. Such a shelterbelt also enhances human enjoyment – it will mitigate the effect of wind and snow, provide privacy, and offer a contrasting backdrop for other plantings. If space is at a premium, try a clipped Eastern White Cedar hedge. I have been amazed at how much life can be found in such a hedge on a minus 30 mid-winter day.

There are a number of deciduous trees that display well against evergreens. Chief among these is the White Birch (Betula papyrifera), also known as Paper or Canoe Birch, one of our most beautiful and iconic trees. Essentially Canadian, it grows from east to west, from one end of the continent to the other. Here in Ontario, it’s a constant, mixed with maple and oak in the deciduous woods of Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region, and interspersed northwards in the spruce-dominated Boreal forest. It’s also a backyard favourite across the province, but the fact that it’s a common sight doesn’t detract from its appeal – on the contrary, it establishes a strong sense of place, something that’s an essential part of any well-designed garden. Whether it’s growing as a single trunk or a multi-stemmed clump, each specimen of this graceful tree with its bright peeling bark has a charm all its own.

There are other native birches to look out for. I particularly like the Yellow Birch (B. alleghaniensis). Here in Huronia, we’re at the northern end of its continental range. The bark has a darkly golden sheen and peels back in curly ribbons. Do not remove the bark, this can kill the tree. The twigs and leaves are aromatic and can be used for tea. This tree was a source of oil-of-wintergreen, used as a flavouring and in traditional medicine, most readily extracted from the low-growing plant named Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). 

Another birch from which wintergreen was once distilled is Cherry Birch (B. lenta). This tree is rare in Canada with only one known naturally occurring stand, on private property in Port Dalhousie, that has shrunk from 50 trees when discovered in 1967 to 14 when assessed in 2006.  It does grow in the north-eastern United States. It is propagated commercially and, according to the late Henry Kock , interpretive  biologist at the Guelph Arboretum, is a long-lived and handsome yard tree. River Birch (B. nigra) is also worth planting, in moist soil. But do not fall for the European White Birch (B. pendula), favoured by nurseries because it develops its white bark much sooner than our native variety (which starts off copper-coloured and takes five years to turn white). The European birch is prone to disease and is invasive.

Here’s a member of the birch family that masquerades as a beech because of its smooth gray-blue bark. Blue-Beech (Carpinus caroliniana), a small, shade-tolerant tree, is distinguishable by the trunk’s interesting muscle-like ripples which gives it one of its other names, Musclewood. Yet another name for it is Ironwood which points to the treachery of common names and the need to rely on Latin, because Ironwood is also used for another understory tree with a variety of monikers, one of which is Hop-Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), instantly recognizable for bark that lies in long thin strips, curling top to bottom.  Still in the smaller, shade-loving category, is Striped Maple (Acer pennsylvanicum). The bark’s strongly contrasting vertical stripes are lovely and quite distinctive in winter.

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is one of the giants of the Great Lakes-St Lawrence region, its reddish brown wood much prized for furniture. The bark of a mature tree is highly textured with squarish grey-purple scales that curve outwards and resemble burnt cornflakes.

There are many shrubs – dogwoods, cherries, serviceberries, mountain ashes – that have colourful berries but the fruit are usually stripped during the fall migration and are gone by freeze-up - that’s a good reason to plant them! An exception is the Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), which has bright red berries that can persist till spring, but beware! The species that is most commonly available and is the one to avoid is the European Highbush Cranberry (V. opulus), also known as the Guelder Rose, an invasive species. The reason the birds leave these berries all winter and only turn to them when all other food is exhausted is that they don’t find the taste palatable. The same applies to humans – the foul taste is one way we can distinguish the American from the European variety.  Better to plant the genuine North American species and have the berries disappear sooner rather than later.

Rosehips are another fruit that can brighten a winter scene. Many shrivel and disappear by December, but Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana) is one of those that keeps its bright red hips well into the season.

The white berries of Snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus) show up well in a dull corner on a grey day – even on an unpromising site on a north wall with poor soil. The berries persist most of the winter, too.

The bright red twigs of Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) emerging from the snow are a sight that never fails to delight but all kinds of remnants of summer can show up in a new and surprising light and provide good vertical structure to a bleak landscape– the dessicated grasses and perennial seedheads that fade to gold and take on architectural forms, backlit by the low summer sun and casting deep blue shadows on the sparkling snow. Take note of such welcome sights this winter, so you can plan for them in future years.

Note: I have sourced some of the trees mentioned in this column. Check the plant list on this website next spring. Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you’re interested in a particular species. 

Maureen Pearce
- 5 December 2014 at 07:37am

Very informative, Kate. I enjoy reading your postings.
Monique Holmes
- 5 December 2014 at 11:32am

Hi Kate, Awesome article and I would love the sources for all the trees and shrubs as I would love to become familiar with all of them.

- 7 December 2014 at 01:41pm

Thanks Maureen and Monique - I have been able to find a wholesale nursery that has some of these more unusual trees and shrubs so I plan to have some here in May. Stay tuned!
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