Tree Talk: In the dark months, it's yellow that's warm

Mary Henry

Years ago, I wanted a palette of plants with white variegated foliage or white blooms to spot around my garden, to give it light in the dark of January. The gardener I was talking to said, “Right idea, but it will be even brighter and lighter if you go with yellow. White is cold. Yellow is warm, the color of sunshine.” 

He was right. It’s a lesson I never forgot, the wisdom of which has only been reinforced every January, thereafter, when I found a yellow leaf or flower or even branch to add to my winter garden.

Unlike spring, summer and even autumn, offerings for winter yellows are slim. But they are out there and, in three cases, fairly big and spectacular, all happily at home in our climate and soil. The flowering tree Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas) tops the list. Masses of small sulphur-colored blossoms cover the defoliated branches of this 15 to 20 foot tree. Edible scarlet fruits follow the flowers and the flaking, mottled tan and gray bark provides winter interest.

Chinese Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis and the hybrid H. x intermedia) covers its angular, zig-zagging branches with bright yellow tassels. This garden scale tree commonly reaches a height of 10 to 15 feet. The bloom period is unusually long and the flowers have a spicy scent. Plant it where you can see it, looking through a window or where you’ll pass it regularly, enjoying the sight of the flowers and catching their fragrance.

There are several January blooming Mahonias, primarily the hybrids between M. bealei and M. lomarifolia. Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ is the the most robust, famous and widely available. But there’s a bit of Northwest pride to be enjoyed in knowing and growing its precursor, Mahonia ‘Arthur Menzies’. A natural hybrid, it was discovered in the Washington Park Arboretum and introduced to world horticulture in 1967. This sturdy shrub, which can be trained as a tree can reach 8 to 10 feet, sometimes more. The big, yellow bursts of stemmed flower clusters are attractive to our over-wintering hummingbirds. When the flowers fade, they become clusters of metallic blue berries that stand tall well into Spring, a great food source for robins.

In any search for horticultural sunshine, yellow and golden conifers are, perhaps, most abundant and easiest to find. Most make great background plantings, others, especially the ones with irregular shapes, perform beautifully in pots, some crawl over the ground or spill through rock gardens. The genuses of pine, spruce, fir, juniper, and false cypress all have multiple offspring in shades of yellow, in sizes and growth patterns from dwarfs to timber trees. Once purchased, enjoy one in a handsome outdoor container for a few years, then plant it out in the garden. I’ve had my eye on a brilliant gold Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contort ‘Chief Joseph’). It’s a stunner. When introduce a few years back, plants in 5-gallon cans were selling for $225. Due to popularity and ease of propagation, prices dropped substantially. Put this Northwest native where it gets as much sunlight as possible, lighting up the garden in all seasons.

Three more plants with the power to channel sunlight in winter, merit mention. The bare branches of Yellowtwig Dogwood (Cornus stolonoifera ‘Flaviramea’) shoot through the winter garden like streaks of lightning. Coupled with dark evergreens, broad leafed and coniferous, they are striking. The same is true of the yellow barked Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’). Finally, we are beginning to see yellow flowered hellebores on the market. Clustered at the edge of a border, along a walkway, or in a pot, were you easily see them, their cheerful blossoms are an eye-catching harbinger of Spring.

Light up your garden this month. Buy now. Plant now. Enjoy now. Yellow leaves, needles, branches, and blossom all ameliorate winter gloom. They’re the color of sunshine!