You should really see Cistus Nursery in the winter if you’re in the area. It’s transformative and paradigm-shifting to walk in one dreary Pacific Northwest day, where you might be used to seeing bare branches and bald spots where dormant plants lie sleeping around town, into a lush abundance of foliage and textures that are in no way diminished by the dormancy of deciduous plants. Cistus feels like California in Oregon, like summer in winter, like a magical loophole where the rules do not apply. It’s where I learned there need not be boring seasons in the garden. As usual, the latest catalog is full of plants to sprinkle some of that magic.
The magic of the Cistus display gardens comes in no small part from delicious intermingling tiers of broadleaf evergreens at all heights: overhead in the tree canopy, at eye level with shrubs or vines, and on the garden floor with perennials, grassy plants, and groundcovers along the edges.
It’s tough to pick favorites from so many good plants and I could go on for days, but I wanted to share some favorites and new arrivals and back in stock plants that are good to know about if you, like me, start to ponder your garden’s winter presence once deciduous leaves begin to fall.
The overhead tier, 6 feet and taller
For privacy, for wildlife, for the sake of showing off winter foliage that brings a variety of colors and textures, Cistus really is the place to look for a reliably stellar collection of broadleaf evergreen trees and shrubs.
Olive Trees, where are we, Italy? Nope, right here in Portland. Olea ‘Ascolana Dura’ is a really good 20 footer with weeping branches 😍 and good fruit production. Confirmed hardy in zone 8, and Cistus thinks it should be solid down to zone 7.
Shop Olea (Olives) >
Cistus always has an amazing collection of Pittosporum which have a lot of variety, like Pittosporum ‘Silver Ruffles’ with its black stems and ruffled variegated leaves, or the spidery black leaves on the somewhat goth looking Pisttosporum patulum and Pittosporum divaricatum. But I’ll have to put in plug for the benefits of skinny evergreen leaves like P. ‘Strappy.’
Shop Pittosporum illicioides ‘Strappy’>
As an example of evergreen strappy leaves, one of my all-time favorites from Cistus in my garden is Metapanax delavayi. What a hardworking plant, with those gorgeous drapey leaves year-round, and the fall flowers that bring all the bees to the yard. It’s not in the current catalog, sadly. But an excellent ambassador for strappy evergreen leaves.
Ceanothus is one those plants that looks smashing all year zone 8 and above, its shrubby form knitting together the tree canopy and lower tiers. Those glossy leaves just always look happy. C. ‘Autumnal Blue’ has bigger, serrated, softer leaves than most Ceanothus. Copious blue flowers cover the plant in summer and fall, and a few sproadically appear the rest of the year. Eventually 6-10 feet tall and wide. In zone 7 it’s semi-deciduous but still hardy.
Shop Ceanothus ‘Autumnal Blue’ >
Myrtles deserve a bit more attention as undemanding evergreens with exotic white flowers followed by black berries and ever-fragrant foliage. They take well to shearing into topiaries and hedges but also look tidy in their natural shape. Cistus selected M. ‘Ann McDonnald’ from a 30 year old plant in a Portland garden for its larger leaves and plentiful black fruits. It has survived multiple tests of ice storms and temps near 10° F (zone 8a) and always looks fabulous.
Shop Myrtus communis ‘Ann McDonald’ >
Of course not all plants need be evergreen to bring the winter drama. Citrus trifoliata is most striking when the leaves drop revealing thorny stems while the fruits have colored up to a soft orange. In spring the leaves return along with dainty white fragrant flowers. Surprisingly hardy for a citrus, down to zone 5.
Shop Citrus trifoliata >
Choisya is a tough soldier of a plant that demands very little and makes a nice evergreen backdrop, shown here mingling with a nice Ceanothus. A total show off with white flowers in spring, it sporadically blooms the rest of the year. Even nude of flowers, it has great leaves, as does Choisya ‘Goldstone’ with narrow golden new growth, and the evergold Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’. Hardy to zone 8.
Shop Choisya x dewitteana ‘Aztec Pearl’ >
Arctostaphylos feels like a quintessentially Cistus Nursery offering, what with their tireless search and propagation of selections that tolerate garden soil and some irrigation. With so many Arcostaphylos native to rocky lean soil, it’s something of a miracle that we have so many options for gardens thanks in no small part to Cistus’ efforts. More than other plants, Arctostaphylos is a plant you can nudge into your style, depending on the haircut you do or don’t give it. Some tip-prune to keep it shrubby and dense, some limb it up and open up the structure so you can see that peeling mahogany curvy bark, or just let it go natural. Whichever way you like it, Arctostaphylos ‘Sunset’ keeps things interesting all year with reddish new growth, foliage edged in a tiny bit of white, white winter flowers followed by red berries, and peeling bark. Another good one to keep overwintering hummingbirds happy. And hummingbirds are another bit of winter garden magic. Hardy to zone 7.
Under 3 feet
Cistus keeps coming with amazing Aspidistras, which have such incredibly good presence winter presence, and are not used nearly enough in Pacific northwest gardens. They take a little while to really get going, but my unidentified plant in my own garden has been divided several times since it reached a good size. Fat leaves, skinny leaves, striped and spotted leaves, it’s hard to pick a favorite. May as well have one of each.
Shop Aspidistra (Cast Iron Plant) >
There’s no arguing that the flowers on Kniphofia caulescens are dreamy, especially at the stage when they’re muted and tawny. But to me, the best summer flowering plants pull their weight with good foliage during the rest of the year. K. caulescens’ evergreen foliage earns its keep with grass-like blue green rosettes, much like the spectacular Giant Poker, Kniphofia northiae. Another new arrival worth considering is Kniphofia ‘Christmas Cheer,’ which flowers December – March (say what???) and would make a nice winter hummingbird oasis paired with winter flowering Grevillea victoriae. Hardy to zone 4b.
Shop Kniphofia caulescens >
It’s impossible to think about Cistus Nursery without appreciating their contribution to the Agaves in Pacific Northwest gardens. Sean Hogan, nursery owner and intrepid plantsman, has done amazing work with ethical plant collection expeditions, finding plants in microclimates and conditions that bode well for their chances in garden settings. It’s such a joy to spot mature Agaves thriving in Portland gardens, and odds are decent that we have Cistus Nursery to thank for the spectacle. If you are lucky enough to have a sunny spot with excellent drainage, what a focal point! Just ask our garden pal Lance, whose flowering Agave montana went viral and became a local celebrity when it flowered earlier this year.
Cistus does an excellent job finding the outer boundaries of plant hardiness so you can grow things you didn’t think you could. Plants with good breeding and looks. In the case of this variety, Cistus says it’s “tough as nails” and hardy down to -20 °F (5a).
Shop Agave parryi ssp. neomexicana >
If you’re like me, and love the Agaves, but lack the hot sunny exposure and excellent drainage that the big toothy chalky Agaves want, Squid Agave to the rescue. It likes a little protection from the hottest sun and occasional summer water, which means it gets along well in a bed with other plants you might water occasionally. It still gives you all that sexy, border enhancing tidiness the way that good rosettes do. And if you’re not a lover of the tough jagged edge of some agaves, these are merely rough-edged and grabby almost like a cat’s tongue, but not stabby. Hardy to zone 8.
Have you seen the copper leaves of Libertia peregrinans backlit by low golden winter sun? Such a stunner. It’s a really good shot of color that is more elusive in winter gardens. Those stiff coppery leaves would be enough, but white flowers are a sweet addition in spring. Hardy to zone 8.
Shop Libertia peregrinans >
Groundcovers and front of border plants
Bare spots in garden beds are so much more forgiving if they’re not at the front of the border, aren’t they?
Wild Gingers make SUCH ELEGANT groundcovers. Glossy heart shaped leaves under a foot tall, and those weird flowers in spring! They like a bit of shade and are good at the feet of ferns and other woodland characters. Zone 7.
Shop Asarum caudatum >
These are the kinds of front-of-the border leaves that positively dazzle. My god. Big, bold, glossy, curvy. In my book, bigger is better, and these leaves can reach 2 feet across, although I’ve only achieved half that size in my own garden, but I’ve seen bigger leaves in botanical gardens. That’s the stuff of dreams. Zone 8.
Shop Farfugium japonicum var. giganteum >
How versatile is Trachelospermum? Is it a vine? A groundcover? A shrubby perennial? Yes, yes, and yes. What a good answer to so many bald spots in the garden, with its lush tumble of leaves and fragrant flowers. Especially good if you give it the chance to spill over the edge of a wall or container.
Shop Trachelospermum asiaticum ‘Red Top’ >
And finally, probably the most requested plant this spring, the plant we sold out of long before we could get one to everyone who wanted one, Pelargonium sidoides has evergreen or semi-evergreen silvery foliage that makes a tidy attractive mound that would honestly be enough, but add to that velvety blackish flowers. 😍😍😍
Shop Pelargonium sidoides >
Just one more nudge to encourage a visit in person if you can swing it. Even on a chilly day, stepping into the greenhouse feels like a mini-vacation. It’s always filled with some inspirational mix that feels like summer.