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Moss' Top Ten Plants of December

Foliage and form comes to the forefront

In winter plants that have good foliage and form seem to stand out more. This month's pick features lots of tropicals and subtropicals with interesting structure and texture. My recent visit to low country South Carolina made me wistful for my time in Los Angeles. So this list is heavily slanted to all my friends in California, Florida, south Texas, and other warm climates.

Those of us in cold climates can grow arborvitae outdoors. A few others (cycad, fatsia, pregnant onion) might struggle in containers if treated like houseplants in winter. But to see them all (except arborvitae) in their full glory we northerners will have to visit a large conservatory or travel south. Both fun options.

As always, tropical, mild winter, and Chicago winter hardy plants comprise the list.  


Click on thumb for larger image





pinus elliottii in parkway

Slash Pine
(Pinus elliottii)

Evergreen conifer up to 100'. Slash pines inhabit low areas, flatwoods, and uplands along the coastal southeast. Fast growing species can form pure stands following fire. Open canopy allows saw palmetto to dominate upland understories. Important timber tree for its hard durable wood.

Mild winters. Temperate to tropical climates.

snowy thuga occidentalis

Arborvitae (Thuja occidetnalis)

Evergreen conifer to 60'. Also called eastern white cedar. This adaptable native is found throughout the east from swamps to uplands. Valuable timber resists decay. In 1535 tea from leaves saved Jacques Cartier's crew from scurvy. In 1536 "tree of life" became first North American tree grown in Europe (Paris).

Mild to cold winters. Temperate climates.

phoenix sylvestris duo

Silver Date Palm (Phoenix sylvestris)

Evergreen, feather palm to 30'. Magnificent specimen, one of the most ornate palms. "Boots", leaf petiole bases, form intricate patterns along the bark. Fruits (used to make date sugar) rarely ripen outside of warm winter climates.

Mild to warm winters. Sub-tropical to tropical climates.

sweet orange on branch

Sweet Orange
(Citrus sinensis)

Evergreen small tree to 25'. Cultivated for over 4000 years in China. Grafted ,ornamental tree with deliciously fragrant flowers and colorful, nutritious, juicy fruit. Everyone who grows an orange tree says it is one of their favorites. Taste not rind color determines ripeness. Fruit will not ripen off tree, so don't pick too soon.

Mild to warm winters. Sub-tropical to tropical climates.

pandanus utiilis foliage

Screw Pine (Pandanus utilis)

Evergreen tree to 60' in tropical areas, much shorter in cooler climates. Mature screw pines resemble joshua trees (Yucca) or dragon trees (Aloe) and produce edible pinecone-like, compound fruits. Spiraling leaf structure is distinctive and ornamental. Decorative leaves have tough fibers used for clothing, mats, and bags.

Mild to warm winters. Sub-tropical to tropical climates.

camellia sasanqua double pink

Sasanqua (Camellia sasanqua)

Evergreen shrub or small tree to 15'. Common in the southeast but still treasured. Prolific bloom throughout late fall and early winter. Flowers smaller, earlier, and more numerous than Camellia japonica. Drinking tea is brewed from the leaves of their sister Camellia sinensis.

Mild winters. Temperate to tropical climates.

senna corymbosa

Argentine Senna (Senna corymbosa)

Evergreen spreading shrub to 10'. Sub-family Caesalpinioideae. Egg yolk yellow blossom from spring to winter are stunning at sunrise. Low maintenance landscape shrub. Unless seeds are needed for propagation, prune back severely after final flowering to promote bushy habit.

Mild winters. Temperate to tropical climates.

cycas revoluta in roadside park

Sago Palm (Cycas revoluta)

Evergreen shrub to 10'. Hard, plastic like dark green, pinnate leaves. Young specimens resemble ferns, and older ones look like short palms. Form colonies. To maintain single trunk remove and replant bulbous offshoots. Ancient genus related to conifers with no true flowers.

Mild winters. Temperate to tropical climates.

fatsia japonica

Fatsia (Fatsia japonica)

Evergreen shrub to 8'. This sparsely branched, understory plant has large, deeply lobed leaves with long petioles. I didn't think much of this plant until I saw it blooming under a live oak at a putt putt course with a crowd of pollinators . In December that qualifies as great.

Mild winters. Temperate to tropical climates.

ornithogualum caudatum
Pregnant Onion
(Ornithogalum caudatum)
Evergreen, bulbous perennial to 30" tall. Strap-like, bright green leaves. Long twisted flower stalks emerge from leaf sheaths and are only ornamental in the early stages. Rather than flower, plant is grown for the bulbils that form under tunic of the caudate bulb, giving it a "pregnant" look. Bulbils soon burst through tunics, drop, and sprout. Mild to warm winters. Sub-tropical to tropical climates.

wemoss.org 2008, Last Updated December 9, 2008