Brighten up the new year with a feast of flowers. Val Bourne nominates the best blooms for fragrance and colour
Winter flowers are worth their weight in gold because they really lift the gardener’s spirits, making winter more bearable and bringing spring a giant step nearer. You can either admire them in a border, in a winter container, or put a few sprigs in a tiny vase to create powerful midwinter magic inside the house.
Some deciduous trees and shrubs open their buds long before the leaves appear and their flowers look surreal as they cling to the black spidery branches. Certain evergreens also flower now, while some ground-hugging plants break into precocious flower just when the earth around is largely brown and bare.
These winter jewels don’t have showy flowers because they’d get ruined by wintry weather. They tend to be small and subtle and come in gentle shades such as ivory-white, soft-pink or pallid-yellow. They lure early pollinators with their fragrance, rather than their colour, so it’s important to place them in a sheltered position so the afternoon sun makes the fragrance flow. On a mild January afternoon you’ll catch a waft or two and you’ll almost certainly see a honey bee, or a large bumblebee queen, sipping the nectar or collecting the pollen because early flowers are vital for them.
You don’t have to have a large garden to capture winter fragrance because the most powerfully scented plant of all is a small evergreen commonly called Christmas box. There are several forms of this Chinese evergreen, but the one that packs the most powerful lily-like scent of all is Sarcococca hookeriana digyna. The flowers consist of clusters of downward-facing white stamens, held in pink buds, and the lance-like foliage is olive-green. Sarcococca confusa, my personal favourite, has ivory-white flowers framed by rich-green foliage. Black berries often follow in summer. Sarcococcas can be grown in a container and even a small one packs a fragrant punch. In colder places it usually gets to a H1m (39in) in the ground, but it can get to H1.5m (5ft) in warm, moist areas of Britain.
If you’ve space, wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) will make a large shrub and the pallid flowers, which appear on bare branches, are full of fragrance. It’s often said to need a warm wall, yet it thrives in an open spot in my cold Cotswold garden and is always full of flower. The translucent, pale-yellow flowers have a touch of wine-red in the middle and you can smell this one even on a cool day. It also cuts really well, outlasting other winter flowers. The downside of this large shrub, which can reach H4m (12ft), is the scruffy summer foliage but I think it’s worth it. The best winter honeysuckle (Lonicera purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’) also looks scruffy in summer, but this non-climbing shrub produces sweetly scented cream flowers from January onwards and again it’s good for cutting. ‘Winter Beauty’ is lovely by a gateway but it also needs space making a shoulder-high wide shrub some 2.4m (8ft) feet across.
If you have fertile soil treat yourself to a witch hazel (Hamamelis intermedia) but do try to buy it in flower so you can see if it’s scented. The butterscotch-brown ‘Aurora’ and pale-lemon ‘Pallida’ both have a freesia scent. Witch hazels form branching shapes slowly, eventually reaching H4m (12ft). They love summer moisture, so they struggle in containers, but they’re perfect in a woodland garden above early spring bulbs. Cornus officinalis, a small shrub or tree that’s the same size as the witch hazel, has orbs of bright-yellow flowers in late-winter and mature specimens develop a rugged chocolate-coloured bark that gleams in low winter sun. And don’t dismiss the humble winter jasmine, Jasminium nudiflorum just because it’s everywhere. Give this cottage garden favourite a sunny spot and always cut it back after flowering to keep it bushy. Then, watch it produce masses of shiny olive-green stems decorated with yellow flowers.
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