Winter time in the garden can be gloomy at times but on bright, fresh mornings when frost is still on the ground the garden can be magical. When thinking about plants for the garden during the winter months, consider those with impressive seedheads. As well as providing interest in the garden, when the bright colours of autumn fade, seedheads can provide food and shelter for wildlife and birds. It’s also worth noting that plant structure in the winter garden can be as striking as anything formal or built – walls, hedges or gates – with as much interest to be found in the seedheads of smaller herbaceous plants as there is in the soaring branches of bare trees or the skeletons of leafless shrubs. Rimed with frost and faded to dusty shades of brown and grey, and almost unrecognisable from their heyday in summer, they bring a different sort of architectural garden drama in winter.
Take a look at our list of recommended plants to find the best seedheads for winter.
Ligularia ‘Britt Marie Crawford’
This moisture-loving member of the daisy family has large, glossy, kidney-shaped leaves with a dark-purple reverse and the flowers are a deep orange-yellow colour; a striking combination. Unfortunately, the fleshy foliage is caviar to slugs and snails, which can strip the leaves overnight. The seedheads are particulalry attractive covered in dew or rimmed with hoar frost on a clear winter’s day.
Height 90cm. 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 banks of rivers and streams in light shade. Known colloquially as spangle grass and has an elegant arching habit. The foliage is rather like a small bamboo with broad blades and flowers that appear in late summer, starting green but 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.
Eryngium ‘Physic Purple’
This majestic, sword-leaved eryngium is one of the largest in this genus. As the foliage rosette increase. the height of the flower heads decrease until a large clump may only produce blooms at 2m or less. It is a striking architectural plant with vicious serrated foliage and flowers late in summer with reddish-brown, burr-like, flower heads. Easy to propagate from seed if it ripens before the frost, or offsets can be removed from the outside of large clumps.
Height up to 2.5m. Origin South America (selected in 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 E. giganteum but with more silvery foliage and a smaller cone. In its first year it produces a rosette of foliage and only produces a flowering stem the following year or sometimes in its third season, but reliably seeds around given suitable conditions. The flowers are beloved by bees and the architectural seedheads persist into winter providing sustenance for a wide range of insects and small mammals from their nutritious seeds.
Height 60-75cm. 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.
The teasel family is one of the best groups for attracting beneficial insects, such as pollinators, and birds who enjoy the nutritious seeds. The most familiar member of this genus is the giant yellow scabious C. gigantea, which flowers in midsummer, but it has rather coarse foliage and leaves a huge gap in the herbaceous border after flowering. More refined is this species with deeply divided, dark-green foliage and strong branched stems with small, cream, scabious-like flowers that persist as seedheads into the winter months.
Height 2m. Origin South-central Russia. Growing conditions Well-drained soil; sun. Hardiness rating RHS H7. Season of interest Summer to winter.
Too many grasses can overpower an English garden and they should be used in moderation. This grass is particularly pretty and has soft mauve-tinted flower heads in late August and September. En masse they cast a soft haze just above the typical grassy foliage and mix well with Erigeron annuus or Agastache ‘Black Adder’. In autumn, the seedheads age to a pale straw colour and look beautiful blacked by the setting sun. Grasses should be planted in spring and cut down to the ground in winter.
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. Its big leaves smother out any competition allowing it to conquer a large area. 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, which eventually turn into handsome, dark-brown, disc-shaped seedheads. These seedheads on their branching stems stand all winter, gradually fading 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 is rather boring in summer with dull, little pale-purple flowers on willowy stems. But in autumn as the seedheads develop it’s another story. The seedpods are almost as big as plums, bristly, with pointed facets like intricate sculptures. They gradually turn shades of purple and 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 shads. Hardiness USDA 8. Origin China. Season of interest October-January
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’
Miscanthus is a wonderful, very upright grass. It blooms in late summer with silky, slender-fingered flower spikes that gradually fluff out and stand all winter. The flowers of ‘Malepartus’ 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.
A plant with dual appeal. In June, 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 adding a welcome dash of colour to woodland edge or meadow. By August, 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. Growing conditions Tolerant of most soils but prefers neutral to alkeline. Origin Southern Europe. Season of interest June-December.
This is a plant with twin peaks. Early spring flowers of rosy purple give rise to papery ‘moon-like’ seeds, which are now commanding attention throughout the borders. At first, outer seed husks appear a rather dingy flat beige, but patience is rewarded, and as the seeds ripen, the outer faces fall away to reveal a perfect white surface with 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.