The best plants for winter seedheads
The seedheads of perennials bring drama to the garden in winter and provide food for birds and insects, too. We recommend 11 of the best
On bright, frosty mornings in winter the garden can be magical. Rimed with frost and faded to dusty shades of brown and grey, the seedheads of herbaceous perennials are almost unrecognisable from their heyday in summer and bring a different sort of drama in the colder months. They're the perfect complement to the soaring branches of bare trees such as silver birch and shrubs with colourful winter stems. They are also an important source of food and shelter for wildlife and birds and an unusual embellishment for a Christmas wreath.
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Take a look at our list of plants for the best winter seedheads.
Ligularia ‘Britt Marie Crawford’
This moisture-loving member of the daisy family has large, glossy, kidney-shaped leaves with a dark purple reverse and deep orange flowers: a striking combination. The fleshy foliage is caviar to slugs and snails that can strip the leaves overnight, so be sure to protect plants. The wispy seedheads are particularly attractive covered in dew or rimed with hoar frost on a clear winter's day.
Height 90cm. AGM. Origin Burma, central and western China, Japan. Growing conditions Moisture-retentive soil; sun or dappled shade. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 4a-9b. Season of interest Late spring to early winter.
In its native habitat, this woodland grass is usually found on the banks of rivers and streams in light shade. Known colloquially as spangle grass, it has an elegant, arching habit. The foliage is rather like a small bamboo with broad blades and flowers that appear in late summer. Bronze and purple tints suffuse the flowers and foliage as temperatures fall.
Height 90cm-1.2m. Origin Southeast USA. Growing conditions Moisture-retentive soil; dappled shade. Hardiness RHS H4, USDA 4a-10b. Season of interest Summer to early winter.
Read about the best ornamental grasses to grow.
Eryngium pandanifolium ‘Physic Purple’
This majestic, sword-leaved eryngium is one of the largest in the genus: a striking architectural plant with serrated foliage. It flowers late in summer, producing reddish-brown, burr-like flower heads that persist on the plant. It is easy to propagate from seed if it ripens before the frost; alternatively it can be propagated from offsets.
Height up to 2.5m. Origin South America (selected in the Chelsea Physic Garden). Growing conditions Well-drained but moisture-retentive soil in sun. Hardiness rating RHS H4. Season of interest Late spring to winter (for skeletal structure).
Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’
This biennial sea holly is a form of Eryngium giganteum, with more silvery foliage and smaller cones. In its first year it produces a rosette of foliage, producing a flowering stem the following year (and sometimes the year after that). It reliably seeds around given suitable conditions. The flowers are loved by bees and the architectural seedheads persist into winter, providing sustenance for a wide range of insects and small mammals.
Height 60-75cm. AGM. Origin Turkey (collected by Martin Rix). Growing conditions Well-drained soil; full sun. Hardiness rating RHS H7, USDA 4a-7b. Season of interest Late spring to winter.
Read our feature by Dan Pearson on growing eryngiums.
The teasel family is one of the best groups of plants for attracting beneficial insects and birds that enjoy the nutritious seeds. The most familiar is the giant yellow scabious Cepahalaria gigantea, which flowers in midsummer, but it has coarse foliage and leaves a huge gap in the border after flowering. More refined is this species with deeply divided, dark-green foliage and strong branched stems with small, cream, scabious-like flowers. These persist as seedheads into the winter months.
Height 2m. AGM. Origin South-central Russia. Growing conditions Well-drained soil; sun. Hardiness rating RHS H7. Season of interest Summer to winter.
Calamagrostis brachytricha ‘Mona’
This grass is particularly pretty and has soft mauve-tinted flower heads in late August and September. En masse they cast a soft haze and mix well with Erigeron annuus or Agastache 'Blackadder'. In autumn, the seedheads age to a pale straw colour and look beautiful backed by the setting sun. Cut down to the ground in late winter, when new shoots are appearing at the base.
Height 1.4m. Origin Garden origin. Growing conditions Humus-rich soil; full sun. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 8a-10b. Season Late summer to autumn.
A bit of a thug, but a handsome one. The big leaves smother out any competition, allowing it to conquer a large area; the branching 2m stems tipped with large, yellow daisies spray out in every direction all summer. The flowers have many thin petals, like a raggedy fringe, around a flat, golden-orange centre. These eventually turn into handsome, dark-brown, disc-shaped seedheads that stand on their branching stems all winter. They gradually fade to buff as the birds peck them clean. Unusually for a daisy, it is happy in shade.
Height 1.5m-2m. Growing conditions Sun or shade. Not too dry. Hardiness USDA 3. Origin Central Europe, Russia, Caucasus. Season of interest August-February.
A close cousin of liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Glycyrrhiza yunnanensis has little pale-purple flowers on willowy stems in summer. In autumn, the seed pods are almost as big as plums and bristly, with pointed facets like intricate sculptures. They gradually turn shades of purple, bronze and rust. They will stand, rattling slightly in the wind, through most of the winter. If you cut them, you can bring them inside as a rather eccentric dried flower.
Height 2m. Growing conditions Sun or light shade. Hardiness USDA 8. Origin China. Season of interest October-January.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’
Miscanthus is a wonderful, upright grass. It blooms in late summer with silky flower spikes that are dark red for a month, then fade to silver, and finally gold all winter. Books tell you to cut the plants down in March when you see new growth, but if you leave them, the skeletal dead flowers stay until almost July above the new green growth. 'Malepartus' is also a good choice if you want to make a grass hedge.
Height 1.8-2.1m. Growing conditions Sun, any soil. Hardiness USDA 5. Origin East Asia. Season of interest August- April.
The martagon lily is a plant with dual appeal. In June, the upright stems carry ascending whorls of flowers, each small and demure, in shades of plum, pink and white. Their exaggerated reflex petals and pronounced stamens add a welcome dash of colour to a woodland edge or meadow. By August, the flowers give way to plump, geometric seed capsules, their coats smooth and polished. Bleached by sun and dried by summer winds, they achieve a lightness of colour and texture which endures late into the winter. Falling seeds will ensure your clumps expand.
Height/spread 1 -1.25m x 40cm. AGM. Growing conditions Tolerant of most soils but prefers neutral to alkaline. Origin Southern Europe. Season of interest June-December.
Honesty is a plant that has two peaks of interest in the garden. Early, rosy-purple flowers in spring give rise to papery 'moon-like' seedheads that command attention later in the season. At first, outer seed husks appear a rather dingy flat beige but as the seeds ripen, the outer faces fall away to reveal a perfect white surface with a pearl-like luminosity. Impatient gardeners may assist the process by gently running between forefinger and thumb. Be sure to let some seeds fall to perpetuate the display for next year.
Height 60cm. Growing conditions Any fertile garden loam. Origin Central and southern Europe. Season of interest May to December.
You can find more information on plant hardiness ratings here.
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