By Emily Norsen

Video produced by Flock Finger Lakes

In winter, a hush settles over the town of Ithaca, New York. Snow falls, muffling the sounds of students walking to classes, and the Cornell University campus seems sleepy and quiet. Here at Cornell Botanic Gardens, we have put the perennials to bed and are working on our winter pruning. For many garden enthusiasts, this may not seem like the highlight of the year, but there is still much inspiration to be found in the winter landscape, as new colors and forms appear. In fact, it is our famously cold, dark winters that led to the creation of the Mullestein Winter Garden some years ago. Inspired by the Winter Garden at Cambridge University in England, its purpose is to breathe life into the cold months, with an array of colorful, eye-catching plants.

A transformation begins in the garden as the days draw shorter, and deciduous plants start to shed their leaves. Corkscrew willows (Salix matsudana ‘Snake’) reveal whimsically spiraling branches, and their shrubby counterparts, such as Salix x erythroflexuosa ‘Golden Curls‘, become tinged with tawny gold and coppery red tips. Not to be outdone, various dogwoods including Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ turn brilliant sunset colors of red, peach, and yellow. Another one of my favorites, winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), produces colorful berries, providing food for the cardinals and other beautiful birds that can often be seen visiting the gardens.

Ornamental conifers continue their display of evergreen foliage, which is perhaps best appreciated in the pale winter light. I love seeing the morning frost appear on interestingly textured conifers, such as contorted white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Mini Twist’). As much as I enjoy the warmer months, there is nothing quite like being the first one in the garden after a heavy snowfall, seeing the raised beds blanketed in white and glittering in the sun. Silvery blue needles on Abies lasiocarpa ‘Compacta’, and Picea pungens ‘Procumbens’ are even more striking when capped with fresh snow.

This winter in particular, many of us are looking forward to a well-deserved time of rest and reflection. For those of us who spend our days outdoors, this is a time of renewal, dreaming, and planning for the warmer season ahead. As we are all learning new routines and embracing different ways to celebrate the holidays, consider taking time to visit our collections on some snowy day—either virtually, or in person—to experience the tranquility of the wintertime at Cornell Botanic Gardens, and perhaps draw inspiration for a winter garden of your own.

Emily Norsen is a horticulturist and curator of the Mullestein Winter Garden

Winter Garden Highlights

Click on each plant to learn more.

Contorted Peking Willow

Salix matsudana 'Snake'

Blood-Twig Dogwood

Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire'


Ilex verticillata 'Oosterwijk'

Dwarf Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus 'Mini Twists'

Dwarf Cork Fir

Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica 'Compacta'

Colorado Spruce

Picea pungens 'Procumbens'