A few years back, I attended a gardening talk given by the lovely Lauren Springer, author of The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beautyand Passionate Gardening: Good Advice for Challenging Climates (with Rob Proctor).
A passionate gardener herself – she owned up to being a "plant whore" (her words) – Springer got the biggest laugh of recognition from the Toronto crowd when she said: "Winter interest is a joke." The hort concept of "winter interest" comes from Brit garden designers, who generally have to cope with nothing more onerous than picturesque hoarfrost.
Nonetheless, winter lasts a long time in most of Canada, so it doesn't hurt to plant a few trees and shrubs that look good in the off-season. Certainly, the ornamental grasses qualify in my book, as do evergreens.
One deciduous shrub that I've found lives up the winter interest billing is Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' (bloodtwig dogwood). The cultivar name is a much better descriptor than the common name: the stems and twigs are orange and yellow, not blood-red.
Midwinter Fire dogwood is hardy in Zones 5 to 7 and is said to grow 5 to 6 feet in height and spread. My three plants, shown above, haven't reached anything like that in several years. Each winter the bright-orange stems look great, but by mid-spring they have blackened, so we cut them down to healthy wood. By mid-summer the plants have grown about 3 to 4 feet tall and look quite healthy again. In fall, they color up nicely.
I've sited them in full sun in reasonably moist soil, so I have no idea why the stems blacken each spring. Perhaps the plants get diseased or the cultivar isn't quite as hardy as advertised. I confess that plant pathology is not my strong suit: if a plant is chronically unhealthy, I usually toss it. However, in this case, since radical pruning encourages growth of new young wood, which has the most colorful stems in winter, Midwinter Fire dogwood is a keeper in my country garden.
Here's more on this on this cultivar from the Missouri Botanical Garden, a good source of ornamental plant information:
General Culture: Best grown in organically rich, medium wet, well-drained soils in full sun to part shade. Tolerant of a wide range of soils. Prefers consistently moist, well-drained soils. Suckers freely to form colonies unless root suckers are removed. Best winter stem color occurs on young stems. Although pruning is not required, many gardeners choose to cut back all plant stems to 1 foot in late winter each year to promote the best winter stem color. Another pruning option is to remove 20-25% of the oldest stems in early spring each year. Any loss of flowers through spring pruning is not terribly significant since the small flowers of this dogwood are rather ordinary.For more pictures and information on Midwinter Fire dogwood, visit the mbot.org site.