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Winter-flowering perennials

Val Bourne / 21 January 2022

Some well-placed shrubs and perennial flowers can give your winter garden colour and scent.

Christmas box
Christmas box (sarcococca) packs a powerful scent

There should be flowers throughout the year in every garden, but winter flowers are the most precious of all. They aren’t big or brash, but these weather-resistant beauties are often highly fragrant. They’re vital for early-flying pollinators and they bring spring one step nearer. Fragrance is common in winter flowers, it’s the insect lure, so it’s important to find a sheltered spot to allow the perfume to linger and drift. If your garden’s tiny, or you only have balcony or window box, create a winter container instead, or position a choice shrub in a position where it can be admired through a window.

Fragrant and shrubby winter-flowering perennials

Mahonias 

Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ is one of most remarkable winter flowers, with its upright cockade of pallid-yellow flowers held on upright fingers above handsome evergreen foliage. It begins flowering in mid-November and wafts into the first half of winter, living up to its name of ‘Winter Sun’ beautifully. It’s also extremely architectural in shape, although a little spiny, but it’s capable of performing in semi-shade so you can tuck it away.

‘Winter Sun’ is very similar to ‘Charity’ and they both came out of the same batch of seedlings raised at the once famous Slieve Donard Nursery in Northern Ireland. Both are readily available. But many consider ‘Winter Sun’ the best and this one was given an AGM from the RHS. There are two more, less-available AGMs to look out for. The brilliant yellow ‘Lionel Fortescue’ is named after the man who established The Garden House in Devon. ‘Buckland’, a paler yellow, was also discovered at The Garden House. All have a light lily of the valley scent.

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Daphnes

The headiest winter scent award goes to an evergreen daphne named D. bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’. The lily-like scent really carries across the garden, but this daphne is a Himalayan species so it needs reasonable drainage and a protected position to perform well. A warm wall, or niche, is ideal. It makes a tall columnar shrub with loosely arranged evergreen branches smothered in clusters of cool-pink, waxy flowers. In cold gardens, it may drop its foliage, but this will not affect the flowers.

There is a slightly later-flowering, new hybrid daphne, ‘Perfume Princess’, which does hold on to its evergreen foliage even when temperatures plummet. It also makes a columnar bush, in time, but this flowers in early March and never quit as so spectacularly as D. bholua, although it’s easier to grow. Daphnes should not be pruned, they really resent it, and they do have an unfortunate habit of dying rather speedily after ten years or so. There are several forms of Daphne bholua and they’re all among the best winter-flowering shrubs of all.

Winter-flowering honeysuckles 

Two of the easiest winter-flowering shrubs are the non-climbing winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) and Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’. Both are readily available. Winter honeysuckle makes a rounded large shrub and the cream flowers, mere collections of stamens, can arrive in early January - just before the foliage unfurls. It isn’t the tidiest shrub in summer, but it is amenable to being clipped after flowering and it cuts very well too, for a winter posy.

Viburnums 

You can also pick sprigs of Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ and this large upright shrub packs a really powerful punch from November onwards so it could be added to a garden boundary. The hyacinth-scent from the tight clusters of almond-pink flowers is has touches of vanilla. More flowers follow, opening during clement weather, and there’s often a spring flourish in March. Hard weather can brown flowers, but more usually follow.

Wintersweet

Possibly the award for the strongest, sweetest winter fragrance goes to a large, semi-evergreen shrub from China. It’s appropriately named wintersweet, or Chimonanthus praecox. This needs a sheltered site, because the flowers are prone to frost damage. The translucent, pallid-yellow flowers appear on bare wood, from January onwards, and the most commonly available form has a blood-red middle. This also picks well but it’s another Jekyll and Hyde, because it’s not a tidy plant in summer. However, it is a lovely winter addition if you’ve room.

Christmas box 

If space is at a premium, the evergreen Christmas box or sarcococca is the way to go. It packs a powerful scent that’s sweet and lily-like and one small plant in a container, or close to a door, will fragrance several square metres. The most elegant of all is Sarcococca confuse, because the evergreen foliage is shiny and green and the flowers, collections of stamens, are ivory-white. Black berries follow and this shrub suckers as it makes a clump, but not aggressively so. A sarcococca named ‘Purple Stem’ has sultry stems and pinkish flowers set against mid-green foliage.

There is also an earlier flowering, more-compact sarcococca named ‘Winter Gem’ and this is perfect for a container. It responds to being cut back and the pink and white flowers, more or less made of stamens, appear in January. The fragrance is just as powerful. Lots of garden centres stock sarcococcas and these slow growing evergreens make winter wonderful.

Witch hazels 

If you have deep, fertile soil and a ‘brightish’ position, January-flowering witch hazels always unfurl their marmalade strands of spidery flowers in January. The strongest forms are hybrids labelled Hamamelis x intermedia and there are many to choose from. Wintry weather may be delay flowering by a week or two but, once out, their wispy flowers escape frost damage. They all flower on bare wood and the buds are formed a few months before the flowers open and these snuff-brown fists are nearly enjoyable as the flowers.

Witch hazel scent does vary, from aromatic to chemical cleaner, so it’s a good idea to buy and sniff a flowering plant from a reputable nursery such as Ashwood Nurseries. www.ashwoodnurseries.com. Witch hazels are best planted when younger (in 3L pots ideally) so that they grow into their space. You can encourage larger flowers by watering during dry summers, because these hybrid shrubs have an Asian heritage. They love summer rain.

Hazel-shaped leaves follow by March and, in June, you can pinch back the soft new growth at the end of the stems with your fingers, two to three inches will do, and this will encourage more flowering side shoots. The most fragrant two are the lemon-yellow ‘Pallida’ and the butterscotch-orange ‘Aurora’ and both have a strong freesia scent. ‘Pallida’ stands out far more in the garden setting than ‘Aurora’, although I grow both. ‘Barmstedt Gold’ has red calices and warm-yellow flowers.

The flowers give at least four weeks of joy and these slow-growing shrubs generally form a vase-shaped structure and the ground underneath can be planted right up to the main trunk, with early flowering spring bulbs, or ferns with winter presence. Polypodium cambricum’ ‘Richard Kayse’ spreads into clumps, but spaces out its fronds.

Autumn-flowering cherry 

If you’re in the southern half of England the autumn-flowering cherry, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ will produce single cool-pink flowers from November until March. The petals flutter down like bridal confetti and, if this tree is happy, this small tree will reach 4m (13ft). There is a shell-pink form named ‘Autumnalis Rosea’. This tree tolerates pollution, but it resents wet soil in winter and it doesn’t do well in cold gardens. I planted one fourteen years ago, as a small parasol, it’s still a small parasol! The Japanese apricot, Prunus x mume ‘Beni-chidore’ is a better bet and the madder-pink tiny flowers open in late winter or early spring.

Winter flowers on the ground

Crocuses

The earliest flowers of all appear in sunny garden hotspots and that could be on the sunny side under a large deciduous tree, or the corner of south-facing wall of border. The earliest spring-flowering crocuses have small corms and smaller flowers and mice are very fond of the corms. They include forms of Crocus chrysanthus and C. sieberi. C. sieberi is earlier for me and there is a purple, white and egg-yolk yellow form, named ‘Tricolor’, that comes back for many a year. In the wild, C. sieberi pops up through the snow on the high slopes of Mt Chelmos in Greece and it can do this in British gardens too, because it usually flowers in January or early February. It’s readily available.

Crocus chrysanthus, often known as the snow crocus, is also early and the flowers are often attractively flamed in purple. The corms do need regular replacing, but they are not expensive. ‘Advance’ is moonlight-yellow and violet. ‘Prins Claus’ is a superb purple and white and this one is an exception because it can make large clumps. ‘Cream Beauty’ is a pale, lucid yellow and this does well in a hot spot under an upright rosemary like ‘Miss Jessop’s Upright’.

Larger flowered crocuses, allied to a meadow species called C. vernus, flower in March, but there is one exception – ‘Vanguard’. This Russian collected silver-grey and mauve crocus produces large flowers in February. It makes a good border edging, with a similarly coloured crocus named ‘Yalta’.

Cyclamens

Cyclamen coum, which also needs a bright position, will also brave the snow and is normally flowering by February and sometimes earlier. The walnut-sized corms produce short-stemmed magenta-nosed swept back flowers before the rounded foliage appears. Seeds follow and they’re contained in little purses held on coiled stems. Ants help to disperse the seeds because they have a sticky coating. These diminutive, extremely hardy cyclamen are readily available in garden centres in spring, but don’t confuse them with the less than hardy showier bedding cyclamen sold in Autumn.

Cyclamen and crocus both enjoy a summer bake, but winter aconites need a cool summer position and an exposed position in spring. If their raisin-like corms get a summer bake, it sees them off. They often place themselves when seeds are set, but their globular yellow flowers only open once the daytime temperature reach10C so it’s vital to provide a position that gets winter sun. The best colonies are sheltered by deciduous trees, but you can use an apple tree. The best way to establish them is to buy them in the green, or by the potful. Look out for adverts for winter aconites in the green in gardening magazines or on websites.

Winter-flowering irises

Winter-flowering irises, forms of Iris unguicularis, ration out their blooms between November and March. They thrive in hot garden hotspots, against south-facing walls for instance, because these rhizomatous irises are native to Algeria. The earliest to flower for me is the deep-purple ‘Abington Purple’. ‘Mary Barnard is a cobalt-blue and ‘Walter Butt’ a steel grey. These cut well well in bud and most will unfurl in water in warm room, after a few minutes or so. This is winter magic – although ‘Abington Purple’ buds stay resolutely shut.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops also feature heavily in the New Year and Avon Bulbs (www.avonbulbs.co.uk) have a range os singles and doubles. Although purists prefer single-flowered ‘lamp bulbs’, it’s important to remember that these will stay tightly shut unless the sun brightens the sky. Double-flowered from, with inner rara skirts, look open even on the dullest of days. You’ll find potted bulbs in garden centres, but always look for health and vigour. A pot is not the ideal environment for a snowdrop, because they need good drainage. You can also but snowdrops in the green and they’re lifted just as they finish flowering. Plant them in groups of five.

The most commonly grown snowdrop is Galanthus nivalis and there are single and the double forms are called ‘Flore Pleno’. They have narrow grassy leaves and small flowers that appear close to Candlemas on February 2nd. It was originally a pagan festival held between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The small bulbs need can be planted close to trees and shrubs.

You’ll also find a greyer leafed snowdrop in garden centres, labelled Galanthus elwesii. The bulbs are larger and the flowers bolder. There’s a lot of variety in the markings and the foliage is upright and substantial. These greyer leaved snowdrops prefer a brighter position and they can be grown amongst roses, or at the front of a border.

The third commonly available garden-centre snowdrop is G. worronowii. This tend to be dumpy and squat, with bright- green leaves and small white flowers. It likes a drier spot, but only flowers well in bright positions. You can also add in Narcissus ‘February Gold’ for its infusion of yellow.

Lastly, you may find Galanthus plicatus. The soft foliage is mid-green with a silverish midrib and the rounded clean-white flowers often have a seersucker texture. This can do well in grass and it seems to tolerate damper ground.

Clematis

If you’ve got a south-facing wall, you’ll be able to grow a form of Clematis cirrhosa. ‘Freckles’ has white bells liberally spotted in red, hence the name, and this often begins flowering in November. The fern-leafed C. cirrhosa var. balearica, native to the Balearic Islands, produces lots of green-white flowers lightly spotted in maroon. The dark-green foliage is a real feature and the flowers open over several weeks, pleasing and sustaining the first bumblebee queens. This no-prune clematis can be lightly tidied after flowering and it can play dead and lose its leaves in late summer after dry weather. The foliage returns again in late summer though and then the winter magic begins.

Read more about winter gardening, including the best plants for winter foliage and scented plants for a winter garden

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.