Dwarf Japanese maples (Acer palmatum dissectum) are the crème de la crème of small trees for container gardens with their beautiful zigzag branching pattern and elegant, lacy foliage that turns gorgeous colors in the fall. However, they must have afternoon shade, shelter from the wind, and winter protection. "Crimson Queen" eventually becomes a five-foot spreading mound of finely cut dark red foliage that blazes crimson in October; "Viridis" has a similar habit, lacy green leaves, and orange autumn coloring. Both are hardy to the warmer sections of zone 5.
Winter Box, Christmas Box
Can you imagine the utility of a dwarf, scented, evergreen shrub adaptable to the most inhospitable places? Winter box, also called Christmas box, (Sarcococca confusa), an extremely useful, luxuriant-looking evergreen shrub with deep glossy foliage, highly scented flowers, and deep black fruits, will thrive and spread, forming a dense mass of evergreen stems, hardy in zones 6-8. It seldom reaches 3 feet in height. There are few plants that offer their blooms in the dead of winter, but this is one that does, and announces its presence with a hauntingly sweet scent.
All sarcococcas are best grown in semi- to deep shade: their foliage is bleached by sunlight, and dwindle in full sun. Surrounding light shade from nearby shrubs is sufficient to grow this plant in a more open location. They are idel for dry shade. They are also useful groundcover plants under trees, where little else will grow. No routine maintenance is required. They can be pruned any time between April through to September.
Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), also known as Oregon Grape holly, is a hugely adaptable plant that seldom exceeds 3 feet in height. Their attractive evergreen foliage often colors crimson, red, and yellow in the fall and winter. In late winter and early spring, dense clusters of vibrant yellow flowers bloom just above the foliage. The Mahonia aquifolium "Apollo" has dense clusters of fragrant, pure yellow flowers and is adorned with gold, clean foliage and red leaf petioles. Oregon grape will grow in partial shade to full sun as long as there is enough moisture available during periods of drought. They are hardy to zones 4-8.
Oregon Grape "Apollo"Mahonia aquifolium
Photo source: Plantentuin Esveld
Witch hazels (Hamamelis) have it all. Hardy at least as far north as Boston, these relatively small, vase-shaped trees offer early spring flowers and fall color. The Chinese witch hazel can bloom as early as February in Connecticut, displaying knots of scented, yellow, threadlike flowers. The fall leaf color is a pure, deep gold.
Winter boxSarcococca confusa
Rowallane House, Co Down.
National Museums Northern Ireland
Witch Hazels Cultivars
Many cultivars have been developed from crosses between the Chinese and Japanese witch hazel. Of these, yellow-flowered Hamamelis X intermedia "Arnold Promise" is the most familiar; "Diane" has dark bronze-red flowers; and "Jelena", also known as "Copper Beauty", has golden orange flowers.
If you like crab apples, look for those which are resitant to rust, mildew, and fire blight. Malus sargentii, and old variety, is still one of the most disease resistant and has a naturally dwarf habit. The abundant spring flowers are white. "Red Jade" is a beautiful weeping form with good disease resistance, pink to white flowers, and a fine display of red fruit in the fall. "Louisa" has pink flowers, a somewhat weeping habit, and good disease resistance. All are suitable to zones 4 to 7.