Winter-flowering plants that are self-decorating Christmas trees

Light up your yuletide with these amazing festive plants

The people on my street really go to town with outdoor Christmas decorations: intricately arranged frosted willow boughs, great garlands of fairy lights, animatronic Santas, the works! However, for lazy gardeners like me there is a group of trees and shrubs that will literally decorate themselves, as if by magic, adorning their branches with shiny red baubles every year, perfectly in time for the holiday season. No struggling with cables, messing with electrics or boring clean-up come January. They are also a magnet for wildlife during the colder months. You might just call them a Christmas miracle.

Given that they are easy to grow, widely available and inexpensive to buy, it’s a real surprise they aren’t more common Christmas presents, especially since now is a perfect time to plant one. With that in mind, here are my top three choices for shrubs and trees that could be part of your Christmas tradition for years to come.

Walking around my neighbourhood last week I was stopped dead in my tracks by the glossy red orbs of the ornamental crab apple Malus robusta ‘Red Sentinel’, a stunning small tree whose scarlet fruit are so intensely coloured they look like they are lit from within. With added bonuses of beautiful, fragrant white blossom in spring and golden leaves come the autumn, this variety really earns its keep. And growing to just 5m tall, it is small enough to fit into most pocket-sized spaces without taking over.

If it is more of a shrub you are after, Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’ in my experience provides the best of both worlds. It has lovely bright red fruit, too, produced in neat little bunches, set off by leaves that turn crimson in the autumn, but can be trained as anything from a neat hedge to a standard tree simply by how you choose to prune it. Just like crab apples, they produce loads of pretty white flowers in spring that are much loved by bees as well as providing a welcome supply of fruit for hungry birds in winter.

Watch the birdy: a robin gets its beak around a Cotoneaster berry.
Watch the birdy: a robin gets its beak around a Cotoneaster berry. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

But what if architectural structure if more your thing? Cornus sanguinea ‘Magic Flame’ does exactly what it says on the tin. Come the winter this small, mild-mannered green shrub starts to show its true colours, with leaves turning to butter yellow, burnt orange and fiery red. But it is when the leaves fall that the true drama is revealed. A nest of yellow, upright stems topped with bright red tips gives the whole plant the look of a shrub ablaze. With regular pruning these rarely grow more than 2m, offering up a whole lot of drama in a tiny space.

If you have the space, however, why not plant all three? They’ll give you loads of material for homemade wreaths, indoor decorations and gifts for decades to come in exchange for mercifully little work.

Email James at james.wong@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @Botanygeek

Contributor

James Wong

The GuardianTramp

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