GreenUP: Get to know local plants that brighten our winters

GreenUP: Get to know local plants that brighten our winters

Are you looking for a fun and affordable outdoor winter activity? Learn about native plants that offer visual interest and ecological value year-round. Here are four cold-season favorites chosen by plant-savvy staff at the City of Peterborough and Alderville Black Oak Savanna.

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) is a winter favorite of Nicky Partridge, Urban Forest Technologist at the City of Peterborough.

“White pine is a common tree in most Ontario forests and one of the first trees I saw as a kid camping in Algonquin Park. It means something to me because there are five needles in each of its bundles and five people in my family,” says Partridge.

“Ecologically, Pinus strobus is an important winter tree,” she continues. “It’s an ideal screen and windbreak on cold, windy days and provides nesting sites for many wintering birds, including tits, nuthatches and woodpeckers. The seeds from its cones are also used as food by forest animals such as rabbits, squirrels and birds.”

The unique windswept shape of the white pine is hard to miss in winter. There are many wonderful local White Pines within the city limits. In Jackson Park, these stately trees can be admired near Parkhill and Monaghan, or along the trails in the lower part of the park.

White pine is also a good choice to plant at home. It is a fast-growing conifer that can easily reach 80 feet but is often shorter in cities. Plant away from sidewalks and driveways to ensure the tree is not damaged by road salt or urban pollution.

Gillian Di Petta, Mitigomin Native Plant Nursery Coordinator in Alderville Black Oak Savanna, and Julie Henry, the organization’s Natural Heritage Coordinator, explain the important role native plants play during winter.

“Native plants in winter are beautiful in both form and function. The undisturbed death of the plants in autumn ensures that the natural ecosystem functions. They provide shelter for wintering insects, natural seed dispersal, and food for birds and mammals.”

If Eastern White Pine is the type of plant to spot from afar, Di Petta and Henry’s three favorites will benefit from a closer look.

“Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) is a native shrub whose branches are a striking red-orange color that is visible in winter. Dense plantings of red osier can provide shelter and act as a perch for small birds.”

Planting Red Osier Dogwood can be easy as once you have a plant you can propagate cuttings by “sticking” them in the soil.

Di Petta and Henry note that herbaceous flowering plants, including grasses and perennials, provide winter beauty, important food, and habitat for native wildlife.

As a perennial for your garden, Henry and Di Petta recommend Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata), whose showy spikes of pink-purple flowers are a delight to humans and bees alike. In winter, pollinators and other insects seek shelter in the hollow stems, while the tall form of Dense Blazing Star provides visual weight and structure to the garden year-round.

Last but not least is savannah grass (Sorghastrum nutans), one of the characteristic warm-season grasses of oak savannah and tallgrass prairie (both endangered ecosystems). The Alderville Black Oak Savanna team is doing important work to restore, preserve and enhance these environments.

“Savannah grass holds the seed longer than most native grasses,” explain Di Petta and Henry. “The textured feathers of this striking yellow grass can provide food for ground-foraging birds.”

This impressive grass can grow up to 1.5m tall in the right conditions and shines in both conservatories and extensive grasslands.

Red Osier Dogwood, Dense Blazing Star and Savanna Grass are all found in the region. To see them and more native plants this winter, plan a trip to Alderville Black Oak Savanna, located south of Rice Lake in the Alderville First Nation. You can find their hours of operation and more information online at

After learning about these incredible plants, curl up with a hot drink on a cold day and design your very own conservatory. All of the plants mentioned, except White Pine, work well in rain gardens, which are bowl-shaped gardens that temporarily hold and absorb runoff from nearby surfaces. By designing your rain garden now, you can enjoy these native plants throughout all four seasons, 2023 and beyond.

The City of Peterborough will subsidize the cost of establishing a rain garden on eligible lands up to a maximum of US$1,000. To learn more and start your application, visit

Hayley Goodchild is Program Coordinator at Peterborough GreenUP. You can reach Hayley at [email protected] or (705) 745-3238 ext. 213

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