Boost your winter flower count

Hellebores at East Lambrook Manor

Hellebores at East Lambrook Manor

Fill your garden with flowers and fragrance this season. Val Bourne picks her favourite shrubs and perennials that bloom in deepest winter

You can’t have failed to notice, the days are stretching out and in a few weeks’ time we’ll have a full 12 hours of daylight. Luckily, plenty of winter-flowering plants are willing to brave the weather and, when it’s cold and grey outdoors, a few fresh flowers produce a special kind of magic.

These winter flowers have to be rugged to withstand the weather, so they tend to be small and subtle in form and colour. There are milkshake pinks and whites, and pallid, moonlit yellows. These colours stand out well in low winter sunshine while most of the garden is lying dormant.

Iris reticulata ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’

Iris reticulata ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’

The function of every flower is to attract insects, so that pollen gets transferred from one flower to another. At this time of year they can’t be big and blowsy, because they wouldn’t last five minutes in a downpour. Their secret weapon is fragrance, which is why so many winter-flowering plants are sweetly scented. Give them a sheltered spot, preferably one that gets afternoon sunshine, and their perfume will carry on the warm, still air.

Most of these sweetly scented flowers hope to attract an early bee. However, green flowers lure in flies and native Helleborus foetidus produces a meaty smell so it’s known as the stinking hellebore, but don’t let that put you off! It’s a stunner, with crisp, divided foliage and clusters of maroon-edged, apple green bells.

In order to survive, these flowers have developed several strategies. Some, like winter-flowering Daphne bholua, have thick waxy petals. Starry-flowered Magnolia stellata has spaces between its petals to allow frosty air to escape, while others are merely collections of stamens, perhaps with a few small petals facing downwards to shed rain and snow.