Beyond the Bloom

Yellow flowers

In The Garden — April 2013

It's easy to enjoy the bright yellow flowers opening on the bare branches of forsythia that signal the start of spring. Yet the plant is hardly noticed for the other 50 weeks of the year because it has very limited ornamental value beyond its bloom.

Unfortunately, many landscape plant choices are made based on one characteristic – the flower – despite its short-term effect. The plant currently in bloom in the landscape is usually the top seller in the nursery. However, plants have a wide range of interesting characteristics to offer that deserve more attention. Some characteristics are as bold as a floral display, such as fall color, while others are much more subtle. These subtle traits are often much longer lasting, making them more valuable in creating an appealing full-season landscape. So when selecting plants, look for those that offer some of the following:

– Unique texture. Any plant part can add interest with an unusual texture. Narrow leaves (Fine Line® buckthorn), flaky bark (river birch) and fluffy seedheads (many ornamental grasses) are just a few examples.

– Summer leaf color. Unusual and bold foliage color and variegation can add interest, yet it's easy to go overboard (and many do). Instead, use them sparingly and rely more on subtle variations of green.

– Fall leaf color. The fall colors in the landscape often put on a better show than spring blooms. And it's more than trees – many shrubs, grasses and even perennials offer an extra shot of autumn beauty.

– Colorful fruits. Although the crabapple is often selected because of its flower, many varieties put on an underappreciated colorful, and longer lasting, fruit display. Other great choices for their colorful fruits are viburnums, chokeberry and hawthorn. A tangent appeal is the wildlife attracted by the fruits.

– Fragrance. To those of us with a keen sense of smell, flowers that offer a pleasant fragrance greatly enhance the landscape experience. Koreanspice viburnum, sweet autumn clematis and Russian olive are a few of my favorites.

– Movement. Plants that move with the breeze, like flowing grasses and rustling cottonwood leaves, add another layer of appeal to the landscape.

– Winter interest. Many of the above traits can increase the attractiveness of the winter landscape. Also look for stem/bark color (red dogwood, sycamore), form (pagoda dogwood, bur oak) and seed heads (upright sedum, grasses).


Plants that display attractive characteristics for several months of the year are called multi-season interest plants. These plants do more for your landscape, making it more interesting and dynamic as the seasons pass. You simply get more bang for your buck from multi-season contributors. It just makes good sense to use these instead of single season plants, especially if you have limited space to work with. Although there are many multi-season interest plants to choose from, here are a few to consider:

London planetree. A large tree with wonderful, mottled, olive green to creamy white bark that is an eye-catcher all year long. Also has large, attractive leaves and persistent globe shaped seed clusters.

Viburnum. There's a great variety of medium to large shrubs and small trees to choose from in this group. Most have a spring flower (some very fragrant), red to blue fruit, fall leaf color and nice form.

Dogwood. Another genus of plants with many options, from shrubs to small trees. All have some or most of the following: spring flower, fruit (white, red or bluish black), fall leaf color and winter stem color.

Ornamental grasses. A wide range of textures, subtle colors and seedheads make grasses effective nearly year-round.

Sedum. Perennial groundcover and upright versions have attractive foliage in interesting colors that look good throughout the growing season. Most have late summer to fall flowers and  the spent blossoms add winter interest.

Flowers in the landscape are wonderful, but their effect is fleeting. The plant's remaining characteristics (good or bad) are what you will have the rest of the year so it's helpful to factor these traits into plant selection.

Kendall Weyers
Community Forestry Associate
Nebraska Statewide Arboretum

Dan Moser
IANR News Service

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