The winds of November begin to blow in earnest. The last of the autumn leaves and late season flower petals are blown swirling into the air and settle into the nooks and crannies of our garden, our neighbors’ gardens and the thicket and forest beyond. The apparel of summer is finally shed and fall cleanup is done. Many people move indoors and forget about the garden for the winter except to dream of spring’s eventual rebirth and splendor. But for those who plan for the beauty of the winter garden, this time of year is just one brief phase between the inhale and exhale of Mother Nature’s great cycle.
The palette of the winter landscape offers a voluminous range of garden fascination. There is the richness and texture of the distinguished class of plants known as conifers, or cone-bearing plants and the glistening family of the broadleaf evergreens. We see the striped, flaking, or mottled bark of the deciduous trees in every color from glossy copper to ghost white, or the bounteous clusters of many-colored berries adorning twigs and branches. In addition to these, the blossoms of winter are most welcome during our short and misty Whidbey Island days.
We are sometimes surprised at the color and fragrance of these off-season performers, complete with the attending pollinating winds and the insects that for some complex biological reason prefer to feast and labor with a winter seasonal bias.
Here in the temperate maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest, we are most fortunate to be able to include in our gardens a fine and ample selection of winter blooming ornamentals.
As most of the plant world seems to be tucking in for a long winter’s nap, there are several groups of camellias that are waking up fresh and ready with a full autumn and winter chorus of color and fragrance. The broadleaf evergreen, Camellia sasanqua varieties begin popping their single or semi-double, and often fragrant blooms as early as October and continue through the entire winter depending on the variety. They range in color from pure white, bi-color pinks and white, shades of deep rich rose to pale pinks, and reds. These elegant plants drop their spent blooms modestly and inconspicuously, a characteristic adding to their charming, well-behaved manner.
The pink flowers of the Viburnum bodnatense begin to emerge just after the leaves have dropped in November. This stiffly upright deciduous shrub offers a pink cloud of full bloom around the Christmas holiday and erratic, light spot blooming in the summer and fall. Cut the branches to force indoors for a softly fragrant mid-winter floral arrangement.
Lonicera fragrantissima and Lonicera standishii are two members of the Honeysuckle genus. They are shrubby, twiggy species that are essentially invisible during the summertime in their foliage phase and are not overly showy in their flowering phase, but put your nose up to the small, white tubular flowers and breathe deeply for a profound experience in aromatherapy! These Honeysuckles are wonderful for cutting the bare woody branches just before the buds open. Bring them inside to fill the room with a sweet, gardenia-like perfume in the depth of winter.
No Northwest garden is complete without the glistening green foliage and sweet, heady perfume of the Sarcococca species. Also known as Vanilla Plant or Winter Box, this plant produces numerous tiny, cream-white fragrant florets that cling to the undersides of the stems, and infuse the air with a delicious vanilla-like scent. Locate this plant in a shady location near a door or walkway to delight your senses as you pass by. Sarcococca begins blooming in January.
Probably the best and most profound genus of winter-blooming plants is the group called Hamamelis or the Witch Hazels. These slow- growing and stable aristocrats offer beguilingly fragrant flowers with fringey, strap-like sepals. Superb work has been done in the cross breeding of Hamamelis species to produce some excellent cultivars. Look for H. mollis ‘Pallida’ with its butter yellow flowers. ‘Diane’ produces a rich and somewhat brooding dark red, and ‘Jelena’ is an intriguing coppery orange. ‘Arnold’s Promise is considered by many to be the best of the Witch Hazels. This fragrant plant, with its clear yellow flowers, wins the prize for the heaviest crop of blossoms and the longest bloom progression. As the Witch Hazels mature, they begin to infuse the winter days with a fruity/spicey scent beginning in January.
The visual display and gentle fragrance of the Corylopsis species, or Winter Hazels, provide a brightly architectural effect in the winter garden. The smaller, spreading C. pauciflora or Buttercup Winter Hazel is best for smaller spaces. C. sinensis, the 10’ tall Chinese Winter Hazel, requires more open space. The vertical aspect of the drooping catkins on the shrubs’ naturally graceful structure conveys the sense that the garden is decked with soft yellow tinsel.
A conversation on winter bloomers is not complete without noting the importance of the wondrous genus Helleborus. For ease of care, multi-seasonal interest, adaptability, handsome foliage, generous flower display, and color range, the Hellebores are second to none. Helleborus orientalis or Lenten Rose, affords a wide range of flower color; white, many shades of pink, reds, purples and near blacks. Some flowers are handsomely speckled, some solid, all beautiful. Grown in full to part shade, the flowers emerge in late January from great clumps of bold, leathery foliage to nod and glow in the chilled, pre-vernal air, announcing that spring is not far off. Helleborus niger, or Christmas Rose, is slow to establish, but worth the wait for its clean, white, single rose-like flowers. Look for the many hybrid forms that offer improved features of long bloom time and a soft range of colors. H. foetidus brightens any dark January day with light creamy-green, not quite chartreuse flowers and rich, dark green, finely textured foliage. H. argutifolius or Corsican Hellebore is more adapted to sunnier situations. It has gray-green spiny foliage and large chartreuse flowers.
Also noteworthy are the genus’ Stachyurus, Chimonanthus, Daphne and Abeliophyllum. All are admirable in the winter garden and all are compatible with the style of our native landscape of conifers, ferns, salal, and huckleberry.
Whether planted against the backdrop of stately conifers or woven into a mixed border, the winter bloomers create a colorful tapestry that can carry the garden and our senses through the seemingly long months of darkness and dormancy with a subtle and quiet grace until the wild riot of spring begins again.
Maureen Murphy Bayview Farm & Garden
***Visit your local garden center during the winter months to see the display of winter interest plants. That nearly invisible shrub that you walked right past on your way to the roses in June, was a treasure quietly waiting for its turn on center stage!
Photo Credit: Kim Ubert via Flickr