While the bright floral displays of the growing season tend to be the focus of most meadow visitors, winter is also a time of unique visual interest. True, the color range narrows to dun, rust, silver, brown, and black, but the subtle interplay of those colors with the textures of fine grasses, stark stems, and sculptural seed heads give winter meadows a wild beauty all their own.
In fact, aside from the ecological value of leaving a meadow unmown through the winter, the aesthetics of the winter meadow are one of the other main reasons we encourage clients to leave their meadows standing through early spring.
Many plants provide winter interest in the meadow but one of the best groups of plants for the dormant season are the mints, or plants in the family Lamiaceae. Many native members of this family exist and during the growing season they are prized for their high pollinator value and deer resistance. In winter they offer some of the most robust architectural seed heads in the landscape.
Spotted Horsemint (Monarda punctata) and the closely related Lemon Beebalm (Monarda citriodora) are short-lived plants—being biennials and annuals respectively—but their effect in the landscape lasts well into the winter. Both bear towers of stacked disc-like seed heads that stand out, pagoda-like, in the winter meadow.
Their close relative, the perennial Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) also offers excellent winter interest. The flat, rounded clusters of seed heads offer an organized, architectural look to soft masses of winter grasses.
Aside from aesthetics, all the Monarda species mentioned here (as well as other members of the genus) provide important winter habitat. Their hollow stems are utilized by native stem nesting bees as winter refuge for their eggs and larvae, supporting pollinators even when dormant.
Similarly, the Mountain-mints (Pycnanthemum sp.) bear their umbel-like seed heads through the winter. Close-up, they offer fractal-like intricacy, but in masses they too provide form to the shapeless mass of winter, especially when graced with snow.
While their aesthetic interest is striking, these dormant seed heads also bear abundant seeds and provide valuable winter forage for seed-eating cold-weather birds like Goldfinches, Sparrows, and Juncos.
In short, when planning a meadow, consider the value of winter interest. And when considering winter interest in meadows it’s tough to beat the mints for adding structure to your winter meadow landscape.