A short walk from the Graham Visitors Center via the Hillside Trail, the Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden features a central lawn encircled by tall cedars and firs and a tremendous assortment of smaller trees, shrubs and perennials. This garden is at its best from late November through the end of March, when much of the rest of the park is relatively quiet and subdued. Winter Garden map and plant list.
What makes a plant suitable for a “winter garden”? Splashes of color are welcome. You can’t miss the bright yellow blossoms of Berberis (Mahonia) x hortensis ‘Arthur Menzies’ and Chinese witchhazel (Hamamelis mollis) or the bright pink blooms of Cyclamen coum. Shrubby dogwoods show off red and yellow bark, while small orange-red fruit covers the winterberry (Ilex verticillata ‘Afterglow’).
Some plants, such as sweet box (Sarcococca species) and fragrant daphne (Daphne odora ‘Zuiko Nushiki’), are selected for fragrance. Many plants such as hellebores (Helleborus), dogwoods (Cornus) and the silk tassel (Garrya x issaquahensis) feature elegant, delicate and interesting blooms. Attractive foliage is a plus, whether it is evergreen like the rhododendron’s, spotted like the pulmonaria’s, or subject to change. The William Penn barberry’s (Berberis x gladwynensis ‘William Penn’) dark leaves turn bronze-red in winter.
The garden also showcases plants with striking bark. Among the most beautiful is the northern Chinese red birch (Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis). Its branches and twigs feature bark that exfoliates in strips of cream, salmon and orange. They are stunning when backlit by the low winter sun. A mature specimen of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) contributes to the show as do younger plantings of the Manchurian stripe-bark maple (Acer tegmentosum ‘Joe Witt’).
Originally designed and planted in 1949, the Winter Garden has long been a favorite of Arboretum visitors. In the late 1980s it was named the Joseph A. Witt Winter Garden, after the longtime curator of the Arboretum who had a special interest in winter blooming plants. At that time, Arboretum Foundation volunteers worked with UW staff to renovate and improve the garden. In 2010, work was done to renew UW Landscape Architecture professor Iain Robertson’s 1987 design intent. Removal of an elm that was negatively impacting nearby plantings has reclaimed more than 5,000 square feet of bed space. The redesign incorporates winter-flowering rhododendrons and many additional winter-interest shrubs and plants.