Colour your winter garden with the help of The Gardens Group’s Mike Burks
For we gardeners, it can be a delight to find plants in their finest hour when most of the garden is looking pretty poor. One great example is the winter honeysuckle lonicera fragrantissima. This is a shrubby form of honeysuckle rather than a climber and, to be honest, it’s nothing to write home about in the spring or the summer, being just green foliage and fairly scruffy. In the winter, however, it’s a different matter, as small white flowers appear on the bare branches, with a powerful sweet honeysuckle scent.
Another variety, lonicera purpusii winter beauty, is very similar with creamy white flowers, and is preferred by some to fragrantissima. Another medium to large shrub is the viburnum fragrans, which also flowers on bare stems. It’s an upright-growing shrub with pleasant summer foliage, bronze when young, which turns red-purple in the autumn. The flowers are clusters of heavily scented white-tinged-pink, and tubular in shape. An alternative is viburnum bodnantense dawn, which is very similar, but the flowers are much pinker. Unlike the lonicera fragrantissima, these viburnum are more interesting, being pleasing in the spring and autumn too. There are even winter flowering trees, and one such is prunus autumnalis, the aautumn flowering cherry, also sometimes known as the winter cherry. The latter common name causes confusion with the bedding or houseplant solanum capicastrum, which is also called the winter cherry, but, of course, is so different! Prunus autumnalis, again, has good autumn colours and then, after the leaves fall, the flowers are white, scented and dotted along the bare branches. There is also a pink form prunus autumnalis rosea. Both are small trees and a delight in the winter.
There are one or two climbers that have a go in the winter or at least late winter/early spring. These include the winter jasmine, jasminum nudiflorum, with its mass of yellow flowers. It’s another old-fashioned plant, not that that’s a problem, but its popularity has waned, probably because the only thing going for it are those flowers – but they are a joy at a very dull time of year. More fun are the clematis cirrhosa types, which are evergreen and also have dainty nodding flowers towards the end of the winter. My favourite variety is freckles, which has pink-brown blotches on creamy flowers. It lasts a long time and the ferny foliage is also attractive. The larger clematis armandii – a very vigorous plant – also flowers in the late winter and has a fragrance too from the masses of white flowers. It’s an odd grower though, sometimes hugely vigorous then, oddly, gets knocked back in the following year, only to recover the next. It also can get enormous. On a smaller scale there are herbaceous plants such as helleborus niger – the Christmas rose.
There are a number of improved forms of this plant now, and it’s worth looking out for the harvington hybrids and wintergold. Also, take a look at the December-darker-flowering variety helleborus Penny’s pink and Anna’s red. Hamamellis are also a treat. Commonly known as witch hazel, they have large hazel-like leaves, which turn beautiful colours in the autumn. Then, on bare stems later in the winter, the spider-like flowers are produced. There are a number of varieties with flower colours ranging from pure yellows through oranges to powerful reds. Many varieties are also beautifully scented. It is important to note that hamamellis prefer acidic soils, which many of us don’t possess. Using a large tub such as a half cider barrel and ericaceous compost, however, they can be grown in containers if you water them well with rainwater and feed them in the growing season.
My absolute favourite must be the sarcococca or Christmas box. These small shrubs are evergreen and, to be honest, nothing special in the spring and summer. As the autumn comes along, however, they bud up and then the tiny flowers open white, providing a huge scent. They also do well in our soils.