Coronilla valentina: shrubby scorpion vetch, bastard senna
As winter’s end approaches our coastal garden is starting to look a little bedraggled. A mild December and January granted us a continuous display of luxuriant green, but now that same brave foliage has been torn and tattered by the wind. Beyond our garden gate there are flowers in the parks and gardens of Broadstairs, but they are pale imitations of their spring-time selves; lonely, shrunken, bleached-out little things that fail to lift my spirits.
Glowing like a candle in the dark is a plant that laughs in the face of February, Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’. Despite its unappealing common names (by rights it ought to be known as Valentine’s crown, ‘coronilla’ meaning ‘crown’), this compact, winter-flowering shrub was applauded by the great Vita Sackville-West, who praised “its persistence throughout the dreary months”, where she would find it “flowering continuously between those two great feasts of the Church – a sort of hyphen between the Birth and the Resurrection”. From November until May scorpion vetch produces little pom-poms of lemon-yellow, pea-shaped flowers atop pretty greyish-green foliage. An added bonus is the sweet scent, reminiscent of daffodils, a feature which made Coronilla valentina a popular cut flower in Victorian times. A long spell of cold may put a halt to the cheerful display, but as soon as milder weather arrives normal service is quickly resumed.
Coronilla valentina is a Mediterranean plant, common in Portugal, Malta and Croatia, although it’s been cultivated in British gardens since it was introduced to our islands in 1569. Plants are not fussy about soil type, but do demand a well-drained, sunny position in the garden. Planted in the shelter of a warm wall C. valentina will perform especially well. Like compatriots sage, lavender, cistus and rosemary, scorpion vetch does have a tendency to become woody and leggy in time. When past their best, old specimens should be replaced with vigorous new ones raised from cuttings.
The straight species Coronilla valentina has tawdry, orange-yellow flowers and is not nearly as attractive as ‘Citrina’. Those looking for something a little different might seek out the variegated form, ‘Variegata’, which is best grown in a cool greenhouse. However it’s hard to better ‘Citrina’, a plant that will transport you from autumn to spring as if winter never came between.