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Best-looking plants for mid-winter

Magnolia cones add winter interest.
Magnolia cones add winter interest. Special to the Star-Telegram

Get a few days of cold, cloudy weather and you may decide that even Texas can get gloomy in winter. That’s when you count on your landscape plants to perk things up. They may not be at the peak in the winter, but they give our little hint of northern cold a bit of much-needed zip and sizzle.

Of course, for annual color, plants like pansies, violas, ornamental cabbage and kale, snapdragons and pinks are our best options, but they’re not what I’m talking about. I mean permanent landscaping plants — the trees, shrubs, vines and ground covers we use for year-round good looks. Here would be my own personal top 10 based on how these plants look in the winter.

▪ Live oaks. My wife isn’t horticulturally inclined. I’m sure she’s tired of my pointing out how beautiful live oaks suddenly become after other trees have lost their leaves and lawns have gone brown. There’s a permanence they bring to their surroundings. And rightfully so, because these magnificent shade trees live for hundreds of years. But live oaks require big spaces, so don’t plant a live oak unless you have room. Nothing is sadder than a live oak that’s been trimmed away from traffic or power lines.

▪ Southern magnolias. Sure they’re most beautiful in May and June when their leaves are all fresh and new and when they’re loaded with blooms, but just as with live oaks, their evergreen foliage is a great mainstay over the winter. Little Gem and Teddy Bear are smaller varieties for smaller gardens.

▪ Nellie R. Stevens hollies. I admit it — I’m a charter member of the NRS fan club. This plant is fabulous for a large evergreen shrub. Its leaves are the deepest green. It can be trained tree-form. It’s perfect for sun or shade. Oh, and every plant has huge red berries that persist all winter long. What’s not to like?

▪ Female yaupon hollies (tree-form). I grew up in College Station, where native yaupons make up the majority of the undergrowth of the post oak forests. They’re evergreen shrubs that are easily trained into handsome small entryway or patio trees. Their leaves are spineless, and the female plants smother themselves in BB-sized brilliant red berries. Give it sun or shade, but include it somewhere! Note: Only female yaupons have fruit. Males serve up the pollen.

If you end up with a male plant, your neighbors will love you for the berries you bring to their female trees, but you’ll be left without fruit for your labors. Let your nurseryman guide you.

▪ Warren’s Red possumhaw hollies. If you drive rural roads around DFW, you’ll see this gorgeous large shrub clothed in bright red berries right now. The plants grow to 12 or 15 feet tall, and the berries are about twice as large as those of yaupons. But the one huge difference from all the other plants on this list: This one is deciduous. It’s bare all winter, so the berries stand out like tiny jewels. The selection called Warren’s Red has larger fruit and they’re deeper red.

▪ Dwarf Burford hollies. I have to draw a line somewhere, or my list would be entirely hollies. But for low shrubs, no plant is any more handsome in winter, so it has to be here. It grows to 3 to 6 feet tall (depending on pruning), and every plant loads itself up with red fruit. In sun or shade, it’s outstanding.

▪ Junipers. From our native eastern red cedars that are finally getting use as large evergreen screens to shrubby types like Sea Green and ground covers like tam, junipers bring a soft and airy texture to their winter surroundings. They must have full sun, and they may have bagworms that require spraying once in a long while, but they are worth those tiny sacrifices.

▪ Nandinas. Where we originally only had standard heavenly bamboo (the tall nandina), we now have a dozen or more compact and dwarf types. Call me mundane, but I’m still a big fan of the second one into the market. It’s called simply “compact” nandina, since it grows only to 42 inches tall. I keep mine shorter by pruning them late every winter.

But take close note: I cut about half of them (the tallest ones) completely to the ground and let them sprout up with new stems. Try other types, too, though. Winter foliage color is outstanding, especially in sun.

▪ Purple wintercreeper euonymus. It’s the little plant with the giant name. It’s a ground cover that’s deep green all summer, then turns to a handsome maroon in the winter. It’s more cold-hardy than Asian jasmine. (I saw it growing along Michigan Avenue in Chicago.) And it’s increasingly popular in sun and part sun.

▪ Mondograss. Yep. Plain old mondograss (also called monkeygrass, ophiopogon and lily turf). Let me count the reasons I love it. It grows in full shade or morning sun. It’s fine-textured, so it’s a good-looking replacement for St. Augustine when you just don’t have enough sun to get grass to grow. It’s deep green 12 months a year, so, like live oaks, mondo adds a feeling of permanence to its surroundings. It has no runners, so it’s easy to blow fallen leaves out of it.

Mondograss has to make my list of the prettiest plants for the winter.

Neil Sperry hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.

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