What plants put on a show for us in the garden to light up winter months?

Olive Ryan looks at the plants brightening up winter days in her weekly gardening column
What plants put on a show for us in the garden to light up winter months?

IN FROM THE COLD: Coronilla valentina, ‘glauca citrina’, produces yellow flowers fromFebruaryto early summer.

ON frosty mornings, the cool, clear air is filled with the heady scents of amazing hardy plants that flower during the winter months.

Mahonia, sarcococca, viburnum, witch hazel, daphne, lonicera and edgworthia are plants worth their weight in gold at this time of year and worth considering for the garden to provide wonderful aroma as well as flower interest.

For many of these, the flowers are very inconspicuous so the wafting scent usually triggers a treasure hunt to discover the source of the amazing smell!

There are lots of white and yellow flowers early in the year, and this is attributed to the fact these colours are particularly effective at attracting early flying pollinators as they reflect lots of light, even with the lower light levels in late winter and early spring.

Spring flowering bulbs are starting to push through now as well with the earliest flowering hyacinth, crocus and iris all peeping up above ground, with the promise of colour soon to follow. 

The snowdrops are gradually appearing, perhaps a little later than usual. These little bulbs require a cold snap to flower at their best and, with such a mild end to 2021, are slower than normal to appear.

When considering shrubs providing winter interest in the garden, a number of factors need to be taken into account. Plants can be evergreen, provide scent, produce flowers, have attractive stem colour or texture. All these different characteristics bring different elements to the garden, and the more points of interest the better, particularly when growth is on hold until the springtime.

Some of the best winter flowering shrubs right now have to be Camellias with their rose-like flowers in bright and cheerful colours. 

They like acid soil and do well in a woodland setting with plenty of leaf litter around their roots. It is hard to find a plant with flowers that withstand all types of weather as well as Camellias and the foliage is good all year round, with glossy dark green leaves when they are happy in their growing position. If their foliage is looking a bit yellow and chlorotic, try a feed with a liquid sequestered iron tonic as a quick fix, then mulch well with leaf mould or an ericaceous compost to keep the plant a healthy green colour.

It is worth considering planting location carefully; avoid places that get lots of morning sun from the east as it can dry out the emerging buds if there are heavy frosts in winter months. A spot in dappled shade is best, sheltered from severe winds.

Correa ‘Marian’s Marvel’ flowers from November to March.
Correa ‘Marian’s Marvel’ flowers from November to March.

Correa ‘Marian’s Marvel’, or Australian fuchsia, is an interesting evergreen shrub that flowers from November through until March. It provides great winter colour with its tubular pink and yellow flowers. A tender plant, it would benefit from a sheltered spot in the garden.

Viburnum x bodnatense ‘Charles Lamont’ is a wonderful winter flowering shrub that fills the air with its sweet scents for months. From November until the spring, it bears clusters of light pink flowers that produce heady scents. A hardy shrub, it will tolerate some shade and needs a well-drained soil. It has an upright habit and can get to 2.5m in height and about 1.5m spread. An excellent choice for planting near a path.

Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca Citrina is a small Mediterranean evergreen shrub with a rounded habit that produces yellow pea-like flowers in February through to early summer. The blue/ grey ferny foliage is attractive and it will do well against a sunny wall. Needs a well drained light soil and shelter as it may suffer during a severe winter.

Mahonia x media ‘Underway’ is a medium-sized shrub with architectural spiney leaves and heavily fragranced flowers from autumn into spring. Mahonia are a good alternative to a small tree if your garden is restricted and they provide good structure at the back of beds or borders as well as flower and scent during the winter months.

The pinnate leaves are useful for flower arranging all year round, and this is a good shrub for a boundary fence also, with its thorny leaves providing an extra layer of security.

Dogwoods provide excellent stem colour when coppiced annually, the fresh new growth producing more vivid stem colour. Cornus sanguinea ‘Annys Winter Orange’ is a wonderful dogwood with orange/red stems that almost look like they are on fire! These shrubs can get to over 2m in height and spread if left unpruned, but to get the dramatic winter stem colour, cut down the stems to about 15cm from the base in March before the buds burst into life.

Prunings can be used as cuttings to increase stock of this excellent winter shrub and it also layers quite well. For best effect, these cornus do look best when planted in groups, to increase the volume of stem colour and create a more dramatic effect.

Take a look around the garden and choose a spot to include some winter interest for next year, if possible, make it a spot that can be viewed from a window so, even when the weather is not clement, it is possible to appreciate this addition.

This time next year, it could be a more enhanced prospect, perhaps with scent also, that could waft in the window or be inhaled when walking past! Happy Winter Gardening!

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