Shrubs with Autumn and winter Interest

It can be a long winter, and a tad gloomy.

One way to have a bit of cheer is by planting a shrub with colour and interest for autumn and winter. Besides shrubs with amazing autumn colour, there are also shrubs with bold variegated foliage, bright berries, winter flowers and winter scented shrubs.  Winter shrubs with berries such as pyracanthas, provide excellent food for birds, especially Blackbirds and Thrushes, which are avid berry takers.

Many Acers have superb autumn colour and there are now so many varieties it's best to see them on display in a garden centre in autumn so you check out its autumn colours. As a broad rule of thumb, the green-leaved Acers produce the best autumn colour compared with the red leaved varities.

If you are buying a shrub for autumn colour or winter scent, buy in the autumn or winter so you can check it out. For example, often Witch Hazel is described as scented. When I did the sniff test in the garden centre, I was disappointed in several despite their effusive descriptions. 


Flaming red Acers

Best Acers for Autumn

Looking at autumn colour, as you may expect, we start with Acers. Bearing in mind, Acers are a large genus of 120 evergreen,deciduous shrubs and trees they do differ considerably, not least in height, anything from 20m to 3 metres. This means it's important to pick the right species of Acer. Illustrated is Acer palmatum which will grow to 10 meters so at some point it needs to come out of the container and into the ground. 

Other popular Acers are: Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki' and Acer palmatum Beni Maiko, both of which have stunning red autumn colour. Acer palmatum var. dissectum 'Seiryu' has red/golden foliage, Acer palmatum var. dissectum Dissectum Atropurpureum Group, very red with dissected leaves growing to a large tree. 

Ideal for smaller gardens is Acer palmatum ‘Little Princess’ which has yellow and red leaves in the autumn, and compact growth to around 1.5m. The RHS recommends Acer palmatum 'Shin-deshōjō' (AGM) which has lovely serrated leaves with strong red autumn colour, compact so ideal for a container up to 1.5 -2.5m. Another AGM Acer recommended is Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream' which, as the name suggests, has orange autumn colour and grows to around 2.5-4m. Although these Acers are hardy, they will do best in a sheltered spot, south or west facting. Acers are best planted in neutral to acid soil and in partial shade as hot summer sun can scource the leaves, as can cold winter winds. 

Euonymus with good Autumn colour

Euonymus are tough, hardy shrubs which will tolerate most growing conditions and soils, which make them easy to grow. Illustrated is Euonymus alatus 'Compactus' also known as winged spindle / fire bush which is a fantastic Euonymus for autumn colour, striking bright red. This is a compact variety which will grow to around 1.5m making it ideal for the garden. The strong autumn foliage looks best in sun although E.alatus will grow in partial shade.

The deciduous varieties of Euonymus have excellent autumn colour. The following shrubs have the RHS AGM (Award of Garden Merit) which is always a good sign when selecting shrubs and plants.

E. alatus 'Fire Ball'    E. carnosus     E. europaeus 'Thornhayes'    E. hamiltonianus 'Pink Delight'  E. oxyphyllus 'Angyo Elegant'  and also E. europaeus 'Red Cascade' and E. alatus ' Compactus'. 

Cotinus have strong autumn colour

Cotinus coggygria, in its different varieties, makes for lovely autumn colour. Illustrated is Cotinus 'Flame' which is a green-leaved variety which becomes a bold orange colour in the autumn and is reputed to be the best Cotinus for autumn colour. Also attractive is C. 'Royal Purple' the colour of the purple leaves intensify in autumn.

Cotinus is an easy to grow decidous shrub, tolerant of most conditions. It is quite a large shrub  which needs space. 

Cotinus is easy to grow  and is a good choice for autumn colour.

pyracantha horizontalis


Pyracanthus is also known as Firethorn and looking at its autumn colour, its easy to see why, with really bright red  autumn leaves. Illustrated is pyracantha horizontalis which, as the name suggests, tends to grow outwards more than up.

In the spring and late summer it has small white flowers which bees go mad for the whole bush hums and buzzes, followed by berries for the birds and then strong autumn colour. It's hardy, and easy to grow, grow anywhere shrub. View some varieties on Crocus (affiliate link)

Nandina domestica autumn colour

Nandina domestica

Nandina domestica also known as the heavenly bamboo has good autumn colour and is a shrub with all round interest. Variety "Obsessed" is known for its autumn colour, as is "Firepower".

Nandina when planted in good growing conditions, will produce flowers in the spring, usually white, followed by berries and autumn colour. 

Tips and growing advice. 

Cornus alba Siberica red stems

Cornus bold winter stems

There are many different varieties of Cornus, some of which have bold coloured winter stems. Illustrated is C. alba Siberica with bright red stems in winter, which look very attractive. There is also a variety with yellow stems called Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea'  It is a deciduous shrub and when the leaves fall off, it displays the brightly coloured stems of red, orange or yellow depending on the variety.  The stems look fabulous back lit by low winter sun. Cornus is reliable, tolerant of wet conditions and partial shade. 

Cornus are easy to grow but need annual pruning to produce the best winter colour.

Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald 'n Gold'

Striking foliage

Another Euonymus, this is E.  fortunei 'Emerald 'n Gold' quite different from those described above. Euonymus fortunei are evergreen shrubs with bold, variegated foliage and this image really does not do the shrub justice.

In the gloomy winter days, the variegated foliage really stands out and makes a bold, bright splash of colour.

Euonymus is an easy to grow, tough, plant anywhere fully hardy shrub which is maintenance free.

Sarcococca hookeriana

Sarococca common name sweet box

Sarcococca is known as sweet box because of its lovely, strongly scented, white winter flowers. It will fill an area with scent so welcome in the dark winter months.

Sarcococca is easy to grow, even in shade and dense shade and will tolerate neglect.  many varieties are low growing ideal for hedges and edging. It makes a lovely scented addition to hedging around a front door or a winter bedding container.

More about How to grow Sarcococca and images. 

yellow witch hazel

The best winter scent of all

This doesn't look much of a shrub, but without doubt it has the lovelist winter scent of all. It is Lonicera fragrantissim, Winter flowering Honeysuckle and it really has the sweetest of perfume. I visit a particular garden in winter just to enjoy it. In my next garden, I will plant one near a path where I can make daily trips to smell it.

It flowers mid December to March - tips on how to grow and prune Winter flowering Honeysuckle.

Winter flowering Jasmine

Bright yellow flowers

Winter flowering Jasmine, jasminum nudiflora  is a deciduous climbing plant with bright yellow flowers in winter. This variety of Jasmine it is not scented. It is fully hardy and makes up for the lack of scent with its luminous bright yellow flowers which appear ahead of the leaves.

It is a very colourful sight when in full flower, bright against the winter murk.

Over time, it can get into a bit of tangle which is easily remedied by being pruned back into a tidy shape. How to grow and prune Winter Jasmine.

garrya elliptica

Great winter tassels

Garrya elliptica is an evergreen shrub which is also known as the silk tassel bush and it's easy to see why.

From December onwards, depending on the variety, it is festooned with long tassels which look striking.

Not all varieties are fully hardy and it does need a sheltered spot - growing advice about Garrya elliptica.


Winter flowering and scented

Mahonia is an evergreen shrub which flowers in the winter. 

Illustrated left and above in the centre, it is an easy to grow shrub, flowering early in the year during the winter, predominantly in January. 

A few varieties of Mahonia are scented, such as M. Charity,  and M. 'Lionel Fortescue'. They are a tall shrub, with sharp spines often planted on a boundary to deter intruders, and make a colourful hedge. Tips and ideas on growing Mahonia.


Scented Daphne

Daphnes have strongly scented flowers which bloom in winter and some varieties in spring. 

There are both evergreen and deciduous varieties of Daphne and some, as illustrated, have variegated leaves. All have very powerful, sweetly scented flowers.

Daphne is not easy to grow and requires precise growing conditions.

purple Hamamelis vernalis Amethyst

Hamamelis spidery scented flowers

Grown for spidery flowers with winter scent Hamamelis, common name Witch Hazel, is more of a small tree than a shrub.  It is deciduous and the flowers form ahead of the leaves (like forsythia). The flowers are usually red, orange, yellow or mauve, illustrated is Hamamelis vernalis Amethyst. If you are planting for scent, I recommend buying in the winter and smelling the shrubs first. Not all Hamamelis are equal in scent terms.

Hamamelis are slow growing and look good in a woodland setting or as a solitary tree as they tend to get a bit lost if planted in a mixed setting. More illustrations and growing advice about Hamamelis.

English Holly with Berries

Holly and its berries

Nothing beats the sight of a holly bush laden with berries, the essence of an english winter.

Holly is evergreen, and slow growing, although most do get quite tall, eventually. Hollies are fully hardy, easy to grow shrub, and will grow in partial shade. Since Holly is grown for its lovely berries, it is important to know you have to have both sexes to get the berries and the names are no help at all. For example "Silver Milkmaid" is male. More about growing Hollies and getting berries.

Page last updated 9.11.2023

Rhododendron dauricum a winter flowering Rhododendron

Winter flowering Rhododendron

This is Rhododendron dauricum, (credit image Wiki Anneli Salo) 'Mid- Winter' as the name suggests is a winter flowering Rhododendron and this variety has the RHS garden merit award.  It is fully hardy, grows only in acid soil and prefers dappled shade. It makes a really good winter interest shrub flowering in December and January.

Page last updated 9.11.2023