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Chesapeake Native Plants: Celebrating Winter!

A wayward honeysuckle blossom, a tiny bud, acorns, berries ... what does your garden hold?

As a new gardener, gardening was a three season activity for me. There wasn't much to do in winter. As I learned more, I realized so much happens in winter in the garden. Fallen leaves are sheltering insect larva like lightning bugs. Birds nestle within evergreens on breezy days and devour berries on sunnier days. Warm days cause buds on early blooming shrubs like spicebush, serviceberry and fothergilla to swell and even vines like honeysuckle might produce a blossom. If you put out a bit of water or a block of suet, birds will definitely take advantage .

As the days slowly get slightly longer, it can be fun to get outside to see what's there. It's also a fantastic time to determine where you may want more evergreens in your garden. Adding evergreens transforms a garden in winter, not to mention the plusses they add for birds and other wildlife. In our 1/8 acre garden, we are lucky to have full grown eastern red cedars, two magnolias and several American hollies. I was curious as to what choices beyond these there might be. I found some interesting options at the US Botanical Garden earlier this week.

Virginia Pine

Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), native from New Jersey to Georgia, is a "medium" sized pine, yet grows 20 to 50 feet in height depending on conditions. These large trees shine in winter and are perfectly suited to larger spaces.

Dwarf White Pine

For smaller gardens, this dwarf native white pine (pinus strobus 'nana') would work well. This is easy to grow in a sunny spot with average moisture and grows up to 5 feet high and 7 feet wide.. Ours, in its second year, is still about 2 by 2 feet. In summer, it's surrounded by perennials and you don't even know it is there. In winter, though, you really appreciate the green and the texture. This is usually available at larger full service nurseries.

Atlantic White Cedar

The USBG also has several Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) trees. These moisture loving trees grow naturally in boggy and swampy areas along the east coast. Atlantic white cedars can be very tall trees in the wild, over 60 feet tall and up to 100 feet, in some cases. These caught my eye because of their intricate evergreen foliage and what looked like a cultivar that looked to be quite compact. Turns out there are several smaller cultivars of this stunning native.

One is the Atlantic White Cedar 'Shiva.' According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, it grows 5 to 8 feet tall in sun or part shade in moist soils. This would make it a great substitute for ornamental hinoki cypress trees (Chamaecyparis obtusa) widely sold and planted. This is not commonly available at nurseries so you may have to ask your nursery to order it or look for an on-line source.

Sweetbay Magnolia

At the USBG, the sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) brightened up the garden. Here in our garden, sweetbay magnolia still has its mostly green leaves. Most winters, this plant will lose its leaves by mid-February or so, but until it does, it's a great plant for the winter garden. Sweetbay magnolia can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub or as a tree and is semi-evergreen. These are commonly available at large nurseries and nurseries specializing in native plants.

Eastern Red Cedar

The USBG has a number of eastern red cedar 'grey owl,' in planters and in the ground. The 'grey owl' is a cultivar of the tree that grows up to 3 feet high and 6 feet wide. It grows in a horizontal form and is well suited to smaller gardens. There is also a weeping form of the Eastern red cedar tree below that was shorter than the straight species.

Eastern red cedar is a popular native tree because it's easy to grow and adds lots of value for wildlife. It can be a specimen tree or planted for screening. There are also a number of smaller cultivars of Eastern red cedar that grow in tree form. Piedmont Master Gardeners has an excellent fact sheet about the various cultivars here including an explanation of how eastern red cedars can negatively affect apple trees.


The grounds of the USBG also have numerous inkberry (Ilex glabra), a small evergreen shrub that makes a great native substitute for ornamental boxwood. These grow readily in sunny spots and grow well in part shade with adequate moisture. These are commonly available at large nurseries and nurseries specializing in native plants.

The U.S. Botanical Garden features plants of the mid-Atlantic in its National Garden and sustainable gardens in its Bartholdi Park. Next week, we'll look at other interesting winter garden ideas from the USBG. It's a treasure trove of examples for us gardeners in the Chesapeake watershed!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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