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Winter in the garden

Cheerful plants can offer respite from winter doldrums

In this part of Oregon, 'winter color' can seem like an oxymoron - unless you're talking about the colors gray or green. Yet if you plan ahead now, the winter garden can encompass many more hues than those two soggy standbys.

So if you intend to tuck in a few new ornamentals before winter, why put in plants that won't grab your attention until spring or summer? For more immediate gratification, consider these great winter plants, as recommended by Nicole Forbes, assistant manager at Dennis' Seven Dees Landscaping and Garden Center in Lake Oswego (503-636-4660).

Trees and shrubs are the backbone of the winter garden, especially when they feature beautiful bark. For outstanding branches and trunks, look for the paperbark maple, with its flaky, cinnamon-colored bark. Coral bark maples are another favorite, brightening the winter landscape with flame-red new growth. Red or yellow-twig dogwood can offer a similar effect, with the added bonus of decorative berries in the fall.

Witch hazels are becoming more popular lately, says Forbes. These distinctive shrubs begin blooming as early as January, perfuming the air with what Forbes describes as an 'extremely wonderful fragrance.' Fringe-style flowers, in red or rich yellow, are interesting to the eye as well as enchanting to the nose.

Another sweet-smelling shrub is Sarcococca. It blooms in late December, as suggested by its common name, Christmas Box. Forbes suggests planting it near a front door or entryway where you can conveniently enjoy its scent.

'It won't do you a lot of good in the back corner of your garden,' she points out.

A lesser-known gem is the sasanqua camellia. Look for the cultivar Yuletide, with bright red flowers that pop open in - you guessed it - late December. Like its popular, spring-blooming relative Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua has evergreen, glossy leaves. Its growth habit, however, is smaller than the japonica's, and it tolerates more sun. It also features a subtler form of flower, says Forbes.

Forbes says: 'Rather than a big rose or peony-style flower… [Camellia sasanqua] is more simplistic. You can look into the flower and see a detailed center.'

If you don't have room for new trees or shrubs, don't despair. Perennials can also do a nice job of spicing up the winter garden. A Heuchera with gold, lime-green or purple leaves paired with your pansies will provide color that lasts all winter.

Forbes also recommends hellebores, which are literally an award-winning group of perennials. They tolerate a wide range of conditions and offer fascinating leaf textures. Some hybrids even have colored stems for more visual punch, such as Helleborus Ivory Prince, with its burgundy-toned stems and blue-gray foliage.

'It's a pink bud that opens to a creamy green flower. That one holds its blooms outward [not down-facing]. It's a stunning plant and a heavy, heavy bloomer,' elaborates Forbes, referring to Ivory Prince.

Certain hellebore varieties begin blooming as early as September. Others flower through March, which means that, with careful selection, gardeners can enjoy these charming plants throughout the entire winter.

For more ideas, check out Great Plant Picks (www.greatplantpicks.org), an awards program developed by the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle. All flora chosen as Great Plant Picks have proven to be easy-to-grow (yet non-invasive), hardy in our climate and long-lived.

From the 2006 list of Great Plant Picks, for example, readers learn that Siberian cypress offers bronze winter foliage and that Bodnant viburnum displays pink flowers on bare winter branches.

The lists are grouped into categories - Perennials and Bulbs, Shrubs and Vines, and Trees and Conifers - and the database is searchable by keyword. Each plant entry includes a photograph, description and culture advice.

The Seven Dees garden centers in both Lake Oswego and Cedar Hills (503-297-1058) carry a large selection from the Great Plant Picks list, which Forbes calls 'a precious resource.'

Finally, don't forget to keep your eyes open. Make note of what plants shine in other people's winter gardens. Ask your neighbors for the name of that delicious-smelling daphne or gorgeous heather. Stop by the nursery and look for new ideas there. Drool over the pictures in gardening magazines.

Spring will be here before you know it.