Is it just me, or does it seem very grey and dark all of a sudden? As I sit here writing this blog at 4pm on an early December afternoon, it is almost dark outside, and the sky has seemed like a shrouding grey blanket all day. I feel in need of light and colour and something to perk the spirits.
Of course, early December is not normally the time when gardens are at their best, particularly in terms of brightness and colour. Many plants have vanished until Spring, and even plants which put on a colourful Autumn display now look like stark skeletons. However, there are still many plants available to gardeners to lift the winter gloom. Some of these plants are true Winter superstars, while others might be construed as rather boring or even ugly at other times of year, yet properly come into their own in Winter. Here are some of my favourites.
Full on Winter colour
For full on colour in Winter, nothing quite beats the red, orange and yellow berries of the Pyracanthas, Cotoneasters, Ilex (Holly) and Rowan (Sorbus) trees, although it has to be said that birds will devour Sorbus and Pyracantha berries fairly early in the season. Ilex ‘Golden King’ is especially colourful, with its bright golden variegated leaves and red berries.
For even brighter colour, these can be paired with plants like Choisya ‘Sundance’ or Euonymus ‘Emerald n Gold’ or even Euonymus ‘Kathy’ or ‘Bravo’. You could also include the neat mound of Pittosporum Tom Thumb for added measure. Or you could use an espalier Cotoneaster as a backdrop for a Mahonia (e.g. ‘Charity’ – a plant which many people dislike but which comes into its statuesque best in Winter). With a tad of snow on them, all these plants almost sing “Christmas is here”!
Structure & Interest
Ok, so you might not want such full on colour in every part of your garden, but there are plenty of other plants to add interest in Winter. Nandina domestica always look good throughout winter in terms of its upright form, its evergreen leaves plus its contrasting flowers and berries. The stems of all the Cornus alba family when seen en masse are a joy, and there is always the fascinating tassles of Garrya elliptica, and in very early Spring the catkins of the Hazels.
Small & Subtle
There are also a number of Winter flowering shrubs, whose flowers are small and subtle, but when produced prolifically can be magical. This certainly applies to plants like Viburnum x bodnantense, Daphne bholua, and Hamamelis (Witch Hazel). Many of these plants (Viburnum, Daphne) also have fabulous scent, as do perhaps less well known plants such as Chimonanthus praecox and Abeliophyllum. And then of course there are the Winter Honeysuckles – Lonicera fragrantissima and purpusii, with masses of subtle, highly scented cream flowers – although they are rather thuggish in growth and need a bit of pruning to keep in bounds.
And I would like to give a special mention to Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ (and its pink version Autumnalis Rosea’) – an ideal plant for a small garden, and whilst the flowers may be tiny, this little tree just keeps on flowering all Winter. Another plant – really a shrub which can become a tree over a long time, and truly stunning when in full flower is Cornus mas, which produces a froth of little sulphur yellow flowers.
Perennials, bulbs and corms
In terms of perennials, bulbs and corms, there is perhaps less to choose from in terms of Winter interest, but no garden is complete without a few Hellebores. Helleborus niger – the Christmas rose – is well known, but there are other possibilities – H foetidus, argutifolius, x sternii, orientalis etc – perhaps accompanied by a few lacy ferns (my love of plants like Polystichum is well documented!) And in a dappled area, maybe under some trees, a sea of Cyclamen coum would be a wonderful winter sight.
The best of the rest
And if all these plants aren’t enough, there are yet more to choose from:
- The evergreen Winter Clematis (cirrhosa and armandii)
- Early flowering Camellia (needs ericaceous soil)
- Jasminum nudiflorum (Winter Jasmine)
- Viburnum tinus
- Erica carnea
- Sarcococca (various varieties)
- Early bulbs (e.g. Winter flowering Crocus, Iris reticulata, Snowdrops)
…to name but a few!
Photo credits: Ilex, Mahonia, Pyracantha, Choisya ‘Sundance’ with Mahonia, Cotoneaster, Euonymus ‘Emerald n Gold’, Nadina domestica, Garrya elliptica, Hazel catkins, Viburnum x bodnantense, Hamamelis, Daphne bholua, Chimonanthus praecox, Abeliophyllum, Lonicera fragrantissima, Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’, Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, Cornus mas, Helleborus niger, Polystichum setiferum ‘Proliferum’, Cyclamen coum.