OK, we’re not going to be sitting out in the garden in January and February or wandering around the borders in shorts with a beer or a martini admiring our displays. But winter flowers are still important, invaluable in fact, bringing us some much needed colour and cheer in the shortest and coldest days of the year.
And this is not about forcing spring flowers to bloom earlier. It’s about bushes and bulbs and perennials that naturally flower in winter with no special treatment. And many of them are strongly scented, that scent is an extra attraction for the few pollinators that are around in winter and lifts the spirits of the gardener hurrying home from work.
Christmas box (Sarcococca)
This is a plant that should be in every garden – even though the small, white flowers are often hidden by the leaves. It’s the scent…. The spidery little white flowers open by Christmas and remain open for many weeks, plant it near a path or gateway to appreciate the fragrance whenever you pass. The evergreen foliage is neat and glossy and attractive all year and it lasts for weeks in water, and the flowers are followed by black berries. Most garden centres stock Sarcococca confusa; look out for it.
Grows to 75cm.
Supremely fashionable, these resilient winter stalwarts with flowers like great big buttercups come in just about every colour but true blue. Many bow their heads on the coldest frosty mornings but they stand up boldly when the sun peeps through. Multi-petalled and bicoloured varieties are now available, check them out in the garden centre from Christmas and simply choose the ones you like. They’re good in shade, pick the flowers and float them in a bowl of water on the dinner table to admire them closely.
Grow to around 20-40cm.
Winter flowers have to be tough and snowdrops will put up with just about anything except waterlogging. Their dainty pure white flowers will push through snow and open in the worst of weather and when cut for indoor posies the flowers open brightly to reveal their delicate internal markings. Buy them in pots in flower. They’re more expensive in pots than if you buy dry bulbs in summer, but if the bulbs dry out too much they struggle to grow. Double flowered ‘Flore Pleno’ has a mass of petals and lasts longest.
Grows to 10-20cm.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis)
If you need just one specimen shrub that will make a feature in the garden, have colourful yellow January and February flowers with a strong fragrance, look striking when the flowers are over, and whose leaves bring you another season of buttery colour as they change in autumn – well, witch hazels are ideal. Look for the varieties ‘Arnold Promise’, ‘Aurora’ and ‘Pallida’. Don’t prune them, it’s easy to spoil their elegant upright shape. Plant hellebores and snowdrops underneath and give them space to mature with elegance.
Grows to 50-120cm
Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)
Bright yellow flowers line the green stems on this tough-as-nails climber from December onwards when it can be the only plant in flower in the whole garden. It’s more of a sprawler than a climber, but it’s perfectly happy on the coldest, sunless wall you have (as long as it’s not under a tree) and those green branches are interesting once the small green leaves have dropped. Winter jasmine can also be cut for winter posies with holly, snowdrops and berries.
Grows to 3-4m.