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Trees and Shrubs for the Four Seasons Landscape

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Most gardens offer a bounty of color and beauty for short, intense flowering periods in spring and early summer, and again during fall color. A garden that commands attention and excites interest throughout the year doesn’t just happen—it’s planned! To enjoy all the seasons to their fullest, you’ll need to plan your four-season garden so it creates interest whether it’s viewed from inside or outside. By selecting plants from an extensive list of trees and shrubs, you can build the backbone of an ever-changing landscape, and enjoy it all twelve months of the year.

Winter Interest: This is the time of year when you rely less on color and more on form and structure in the garden. Evergreens become more dominant in the landscape and deciduous trees and shrubs become transparent, creating striking silhouettes.

  • Silhouettes and branching patterns add structural ‘bones’ to the landscape.
  • Colorful barks that flake and peel reveal dramatic patterns and colors along trunks and stems.
  • Evergreen foliage takes center stage or can act as a backdrop for colorful stems.
  • Persistent berries, fruits, and seed pods add winter interest; some attract birds.

Spring Interest: This is the time of year when a well-planned landscape will surround you with eye-catching flowers from ground covers to tree crowns. Every day reveals a new change. Shrubs are the filler plants of the landscape, creating mass and giving the garden year-round appeal.

  • Newly emerging foliage marks the transition from winter to spring.
  • A deluge of flowers progresses from treetops to ground level.
  • More shrub species bloom in spring than any other time of year.
  • Fragrant flowers and foliage uplift the ever-changing landscape.

Summer Interest: A summer garden relies on interesting foliage. Fine-textured plants add an airy, weightless quality to the garden, whereas bold-textured foliage jumps forward to grab your attention. Choose plants with silvery, golden, or purple foliage to enrich the garden.

  • Maturing green foliage adds a restful and relaxing color in the garden.
  • Summer flowering plants continue their sequence of fragrance and color while attracting butterflies.
  • As flowers fade, foliage, texture, and shapes enhance the garden.

Autumn Interest: This is the most brilliant season of the year. To maximize the use of fall color, create mixed borders that contrast and combine foliage, autumn flowers, brilliant berries, and silvery grasses.

  • Fall provides an outstanding kaleidoscope of colors, including fiery reds, translucent oranges, clear and buttery yellows, burnt amber, and ruddy browns.
  • Along with changing foliage, decorative, ripening fruits and berries put on a stunning display.

 

 

The following list provides information about trees that are ornamental through all four seasons, or trees that are so exceptional in one or two seasons of ornamentation that they would add significantly to the four-season garden. All plants are recommended by The Morton Arboretum for their suitability and desirability in the Midwest.

Plants marked with an * are native to the Midwest.

  • Acer griseum/paper-barked maple
    Spring: New growth light green, contrasts well with bark
    Summer: Blue-green foliage
    Autumn: Russet-red fall color
    Winter: Cinnamon-bronze exfoliating bark
  • Acer x freemanii ‘Marmo’/Marmo Freeman maple
    Spring: Red flowers
    Summer: Deeply lobed medium green leaves with silver-gray underside; colorful red petioles
    Autumn: Kaleidoscope blend of maroon and red offset with green fall color
    Winter: Upright-oval silhouette
  • Acer miyabei ‘Morton’/STATE STREET™ Miyabe’s maple
    Spring: Delicate yellow flowers appear with new foliage
    Summer: Handsome dark bark and green foliage
    Autumn: Butter yellow to golden fall color
    Winter: Distinctive upright pyramidal habit with mottled gray bark that becomes tan at maturity
  • Acer triflorum/three-flowered maple
    Spring: Pubescent foliage emerges along with yellow flowers
    Summer: Dark green foliage
    Autumn:  Orange-red fall color on selected trees
    Winter: Golden amber mature bark peels away as tree matures
  • Amelanchier x grandiflora/apple serviceberry
    Spring: White pendulous flowers; new leaves emerge bronze-red
    Summer: Reddish-blue berries in July
    Autumn: Excellent orange-red fall color
    Winter: Silvery-gray bark; elegant multi-stemmed silhouette
  • Betula nigra*/river birch
    Spring: New foliage bright green; tan catkins
    Summer: Glossy, dark green leaves
    Autumn: Yellow fall color
    Winter: Highly ornamental, papery, tan to cinnamon peeling bark
  • Carpinus caroliniana*/American hornbeam
    Spring: Light green leaves
    Summer: Dark green textured foliage
    Autumn: Yellow-orange-fall color
    Winter: Smooth, dark gray, fluted, “muscular” stems
  • Cercidiphyllum japonicum/katsura tree
    Spring: New foliage emerges reddish-purple
    Summer: Lovely blue-green, heart-shaped leaves
    Autumn: Yellow fall color; cotton candy-scented foliage
    Winter: Graceful, pyramidal silhouette; flaky bark
  • Cornus alternifolia*/pagoda dogwood
    Spring: White, flat-topped flowers
    Summer: Deep purple berries in August
    Autumn: Reddish-purple fall color
    Winter: Striking horizontal tiered branches; multi-stemmed silhouette
  • Cornus mas/cornelian-cherry dogwood
    Spring: Cluster of small, yellow flowers in April
    Summer: Glossy dark green leaves; oblong, cherry-red fruits
    Autumn: Yellow-brown fall color
    Winter: Attractive mottled tan and gray bark
  • Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’/Winter King hawthorn
    Spring: Showy clusters of white flowers
    Summer:Fine-textured, glossy green leaves
    Autumn: Showy orange-red berries persistent through winter
    Winter: Flat-topped horizontal silhouette; silvery bark peels to reveal orange patches
  • Fagus sylvatica/European beech
    Spring: Late emerging light green foliage
    Summer: Glossy dark green leaves
    Autumn: Coppery-yellow
    Winter: Smooth silvery-gray bark; elegant pyramidal silhouette; retains some leaves throughout winter
  • Larix decidua/European larch
    Spring: Bright green, soft new needles
    Summer: Dark green needles
    Autumn: Attractive golden yellow fall color
    Winter: Striking, bare-branched pyramidal silhouette
  • Prunus maackii/Amur cherry
    Spring: Small white flowers
    Summer: Glossy green foliage; red fruit maturing to black
    Autumn: Yellow-brown fall color
    Winter: Outstanding cinnamon brown bark with a metallic sheen
  • Prunus sargentii/Sargent’s cherry
    Spring: Beautiful early spring pink flowers
    Summer: Medium-textured green foliage
    Autumn: Yellow to bronze-red fall color
    Winter: Distinctive red to chestnut brown shiny bark
  • Syringa pekinensis/Peking lilac
    Spring: Large, dark green foliage early in season
    Summer: Large, creamy-white fragrant flowers in June
    Autumn: Ornamental persistent seedheads; yellow fall color
    Winter: Handsome exfoliating cherry-like bark

The following list provides information about shrubs that are ornamental through all four seasons, or shrubs that are so exceptional in one or two seasons of ornamentation that they would add significantly to the four-season garden. All plants are recommended by The Morton Arboretum for their suitability and desirability in the Midwest.

Plants marked with an * are native to the Midwest.

  • Aesculus parviflora/bottlebrush buckeye
    Spring: New yellow-green foliage changing to medium green
    Summer: Large, white bottlebrush-shaped flowers in July
    Autumn: Yellow fall color
    Winter: Suckering, multi-stemmed habit
  • Aronia arbutifolia* ‘Brilliantissima’/brilliant red chokeberry
    Spring: Dense clusters of small white flowers
    Summer: Glossy dark green to gray-green leaves
    Autumn: Brilliant red fall color
    Winter:  Abundant, persistent red fruit
  • Berberis koreana/Korean barberry
    Spring: Showy clusters of yellow pendulous flowers
    Summer: Fine-textured medium green leaves
    Autumn: Reddish-purple fall color; clusters of persistent red berries
    Winter: Twiggy reddish stems
  • Caryopteris x clandonensis/bluebeard
    Spring: Cut to ground in spring
    Summer: Outstanding late-summer, early fall bright blue flowers
    Autumn: Fragrant, silvery gray-green foliage remains until frost
    Winter: Light-gray twiggy mound
  • Clethra alnifolia/Summersweet
    Spring: Medium green leaves
    Summer: Spiky white or pink fragrant flowers in July
    Autumn: Golden yellow fall color
    Winter: Interesting, delicate dried seed capsules
  • Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’/cardinal red-osier dogwood
    Spring: Flattened, white flower clusters
    Summer: Medium-textured green leaves
    Autumn: Reddish-purple fall color
    Winter: Attractive stems,  reddish-orange changing to bright red
  • Cotoneaster ‘Hessei’/Hesse cotoneaster
    Spring: Tiny, pink flowers
    Summer: Glossy green leaves
    Autumn: Rich burgundy fall color; bright red fruits
    Winter: Interesting herringbone branch habit and persistent berries
  • Fothergilla gardenii/dwarf fothergilla
    Spring: Fragrant, bottle-brush white flowers before foliage
    Summer: Blue-green foliage
    Autumn: Vibrant yellow-orange-red fall color
    Winter: Silvery-gray bark with a rounded habit
  • Hamamelis mollis  ‘Brevipetala’/brevipetala witch-hazel
    Spring: Smooth, gray branches, new foliage has light green underside
    Summer: Large, coarse-textured, green foliage
    Autumn: Rich, yellow-orange fall color
    Winter: Small ribbon-like, fragrant yellow flowers in February and March
  • Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’/Witch-hazel
    Spring: Fragrant, orange to copper-red ribbon-like flowers
    Summer: Gray-green to medium green foliage
    Autumn: Yellow to orange fall color
    Winter: Silvery-gray to brown stems
  • Hamamelis vernalis f. carnea/red-flowered vernal witch-hazel
    Spring: Early foliage is reddish-purple
    Summer: Large, coarse-textured, green foliage
    Autumn: Yellow to orange-red fall color
    Winter: Red flowers in late February or early March
  • Hamamelis virginiana*/common witch-hazel
    Spring: New leaves emerge light green changing with season
    Summer: Dark green, bold-textured, toothed leaves
    Autumn: Showy, yellow, ribbon-like flowers in mid-October into December; yellow fall color
    Winter: Attractive, gray stems and spreading branches
  • Heptacodium miconioides/seven-son flower
    Spring: Soft green leaves maturing to dark green
    Summer: Clusters of white flowers in late August-September
    Autumn: Ornamental red bracts; yellow-brown fall color
    Winter: Exfoliating, gray-brown bark exposing lighter inner bark
  • Hydrangea arborescens*/wild hydrangea
    Spring: Attractive green foliage
    Summer: White flat-topped flowers in June
    Autumn: Yellow-brown fall color; dried flower heads
    Winter: Ornamental dried flower heads; gray-tan-brown flaky stems
  • Hydrangea paniculata/panicled hydrangea
    Spring: Coarse, dark green leaves
    Summer: White changing to pink flowers Aug-Sept
    Autumn: Purple-tinged green autumn color; pink changing to brown flower heads
    Winter: Persistent dried flower heads
  • Hydrangea quercifolia/oak-leaved hydrangea
    Spring: Oakleaf-shaped foliage emerges covered with silky hairs
    Summer: White changing to pink cone-shaped flowers July-Sept
    Autumn: Outstanding, wine-red to burgundy fall foliage
    Winter: Ornamental, persistent dried flower heads; reddish-brown peeling bark
  • Hypericum kalmianum*/Kalm St. John’s wort
    Spring: Blue green foliage
    Summer: Showy bright yellow flowers
    Summer: Reddish fall color
    Winter: Brown, exfoliating stems; dried reddish-brown fruit capsule
  • Ilex decidua*/possum-haw
    Spring: Small white flowers
    Summer: Glossy dark green foliage
    Autumn: Yellow fall color
    Winter: Showy red fruit on female plants; effective until mid-winter
  • Ilex verticillata*/common winterberry
    Spring: Remnant fruits attract birds
    Summer: Glossy dark green foliage
    Autumn: Maroon fall color
    Winter: Abundant bright red berries on female plants; light gray stems
  • Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’/Henry’s Garnet sweetspire
    Spring: Medium green leaves on reddish-green stems
    Summer: Showy yellowish-white spiky flowers
    Autumn: Brilliant orangish-red to maroon fall color
    Winter: Persistent seed capsules
  • Lindera benzoin*/spicebush
    Spring: Early, vibrant yellow flowers in early March
    Summer: Attractive, fine-textured, soft green foliage
    Autumn: Butter yellow fall color contrasts well with red fruits
    Winter: A distinctive horizontal branching pattern in woodland situations
  • Physocarpus opulifolius* ‘Monlo’/Diabolo® eastern ninebark
    Spring: New leaves emerge dark purple
    Summer: Creamy white flowers stand out against purple foliage
    Autumn: Persistent seed heads
    Winter: Older stems peel into long, papery strips
  • Rhus copallina var. latifolia* ‘Morton’/Prairie Flame™ shining sumac
    Spring: Glossy, trifoliate green foliage
    Summer: Greenish-yellow pyramidal flowers
    Autumn: Outstanding crimson-red to orange fall color
    Winter: Slender fuzzy stems aromatic; showy male catkins
  • Rhus typhina*/staghorn sumac
    Spring: Bright green foliage
    Summer: Bright green compound leaves; greenish-yellow flower panicles
    Autumn: Excellent orange-red fall color; fuzzy clusters of crimson-red fruit
    Winter: Picturesque velvety branches resemble deer antlers; persistent, fuzzy fruit
  • Rosa glauca/red-leaved rose
    Spring: New foliage a beautiful coppery, purplish-red
    Summer: Attractive blue-green foliage; clear pink flowers attractive against foliage
    Autumn: Burgundy fall color; cranberry-like fruits
    Winter: Canes covered with purplish blooms; persistent, shriveled dark red fruits
  • Rosa rugosa ‘Frau Dagmar Hastrup’/Frau Dagmar Hastrup rugosa rose
    Spring: Prolific light-pink, fragrant flowers with showy yellow stamens
    Summer: Persistent flowers; large red fruits (hips)
    Autumn: Yellow to orange fall color; persistent fruit
    Winter: Thick reddish-brown stems; large fruits turn dark red
  • Weigela florida ‘Alexandra’/Wine & Roses® old fashioned weigela
    Spring: Trumpet-shaped rosy-pink flowers
    Summer: Dark, shiny, purple foliage
    Autumn: Dark purple foliage persist until frost
    Winter: Multi-stemmed, coarse winter habit, graceful arching stems