Winter Sweet

Wintersweet (c) Rosemary

While gardeners in mild, frost-free parts of the country can look forward to an abundance of flowers in any month provided heavy rain doesn’t batter the blooms too much, those of us in the colder regions have learnt to really appreciate the hardy battlers that bloom on through the frosts. And it most certainly is the frosts that make the difference.

I live in Christchurch and when I visit coastal areas like Sumner or go up on the Port Hills, which are mostly frost-free due to cold air drainage and our infamous smog-trapping inversion layer, marguerites, gazanias, proteas and pelargoniums flower on seemingly unchecked, but go back to the plains and winter can be a flowerless wilderness. With a little forethought it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many plants that flower in winter. Some such as the ericas and nerines just continue their normal autumn-blooming well into winter, but others, like the hellebores, choose the harshest days as the time to start flowering.
While the frosty winter months will never be as bright and colourful as spring and early summer they don’t have to without flowers. And with fewer competitors the winter flowers, which tend to be rather simple, are more easily seen and appreciated. Mention winter flowers and for most people two come immediately to mind: wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) and the winter rose (Helleborus). While that may be because they both have winter in their names, which makes it easy to remember when they flower, it’s also convenient because they neatly define the two main types of winter flowers: winter-blooming shrubs and winter-blooming perennials, which can be further subdivided into those we value for their fragrance and those with colour. Regrettably, there are few plants that provide both scent and colour, which is sensible enough when you consider that those features are there to attract pollinators and there no point in wasting effort on providing both scent and colour when either will do.
Fragrant-flowered shrubs are the definite winter favourites. In addition to wintersweet there’s witch hazel in its various colours and sizes, the daphnes, Sarcococca and the viburnums.
Wintersweet is a twiggy 2–4m tall deciduous bush with waxy cream flowers that aren’t much to look at, but they have that scent. There are, however, two cultivars that offer a little extra colour. ‘Grandiflorus’ has larger flower, usually slight deeper in colour, and ‘Luteus’ has soft yellow flowers. None is going to attract a second glance in summer, but come midwinter and they’ll be among your garden stars.
Witch hazels too are pretty nondescript in summer, though their autumn colour can be spectacular, but come midwinter when their heavenly scented flowers begin to open and suddenly everybody wants one. They’re the sort of flowers that you can smell well before you see them. The flower colour ranges from very pale yellow of ‘Pallida’ through to a the burnt orange-brown of ‘Jelena’.
Daphnes have the advantage of being evergreen and while their individual flowers are small, they are clustered together, which means that they can be quite showy. The most widely grown is Daphne odora ‘Leucantha’, but it’s not really very frost hardy. Better for cool gardens is the taller, more erect Daphne bholua, which has very similarly coloured and scented flowers. Daphne laureola looks rather like Daphne odora in size and shape. As its tiny flowers are green you may never see them, but you will certainly smell them.
Viburnum x bodnantense and V. farreri are similar erect, twiggy, deciduous shrubs with rounded heads of small, strongly fragrant, white and pink flowers. ‘Dawn’ is a cultivar with deeper pink flowers but it’s not always easy to find in the shops.
The various Sarcococca species are spreading evergreen shrubs, the flowers of which, while often insignificant and largely hidden, are beautifully scented. Although they don’t all flower in winter, S. confusa and S. hookeriana usually do.
Some winter-flowering shrubs are not scented. My favourite is Sycopsis sinensis. It’s an evergreen witch hazel relative and while there’s no scent to its filamentous clusters tipped with pinkish-orange anthers they are very pretty when examined closely.
Garrya elliptica is like to attract far more attention as its cream flowers are held in long, pendulous, very distinctive pale grey tassels. It occurs in male and female forms and the male cultivar ‘James Roof’, which has especially long tassels, is the most sought after. Garrya starts to bloom from late autumn and can be in flower right through winter.
The Sasanqua camellias also start to bloom in autumn and will flower intermittently until spring, though from midwinter they tend to be overshadowed by the larger flowered Japonica and hybrid types. In terms of sheer showiness and variety, camellias have to be the best value among winter flowers, though they can suffer in really cold weather. A few, like the popular ‘Fairy Blush’, also offer some scent. The related genus Gordonia is also winter-flowering in mild areas, though it is less hardy.
Other than some of the cherries, such as Prunus subhirtella and the early forms of P. campanulata, hardy winter-flowering trees are rare. That’s why Magnolia campbellii is so desirable. It’s a very hardy tree-sized magnolia that can easily exceed 12m tall and which comes into flower just after the shortest day. Regrettably though, its flowers aren’t frost hardy and will turn to mush with a freeze of more than a degree or two. But that may be a chance that you’re prepared to take, because in a mild winter the effect of a 50 foot magnolia in full bloom is magnificent, even if it may only last a few days before being frosted.
Hardy winter-flowering climbers are also rare. Two species shine out here. Clematis cirrhosa has small cream flowers that are quite pretty, but they can’t match Clematis napaulensis with its graceful clusters of bell-shaped creamy white flowers with purple-pink anthers and stamens.
Now then, the winter-flowering perennials, as typified by the hellebores. Although the winter rose (Helleborus niger) has the best-known name, it’s actually Helleborus orientalis that is the most widely grown.
Helleborus niger has pink-tinted white flowers while its very popular cultivar ‘White Magic’ is an almost pure white. ‘Moonshine’ is hybrid between H. niger and and a green- and maroon-flowered species, resulting in an interesting yellow-green shade.
The flowers of Helleborus orientalis occur in a wide range of cream, pink and purple tones, can be double and will hybridise with H. niger. Other species also flower from midwinter, including the large, evergreen, early-blooming, green-flowered H. argutifolius, the smaller green-flowered H. foetidus and several species with small maroon flowers, such as H. atrorubens and H. lividus. As what we think of as the flowers of hellebores are really coloured sepals they will last long after the true flowers have died, often into spring.
Polyanthus and many of the other primulas will flower from autumn until well into spring, as do the pansies. In mild areas stocks will also flower from late winter. Some gardeners think of these highly developed bedders as perhaps just too “artificial” and baulk at the idea of instant colour. I’m not so proud. If polyanthus and pansies are what it takes to brighten the dull days then so be it.
That said I’m really much more in favour of the natural look and equally I prefer spring to winter, so the winter-flowering plants I most look forward to are those that say spring is on the way. Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), snowdrops (Galanthus), Adonis amurensis and the earliest crocuses are just the thing. Catch one of those peeping through the snow and you can just about imagine that winter is on the way out. The trouble is, that’s most often anything but true, as these little beauties can be in flower as early as a week or two after the shortest day.
So there you are; your garden doesn’t have to be dark and dull even if the days are. Nor do you have to devote much space to winter flowering plants. You need only dot a few of them around for it to become apparent that even on the coldest days nature keeps ticking over.

Image copyright – Rosemary

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