10 Shrubs to Brighten the Winter Months

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Most of us spend relatively little time in the garden during the winter months. Of course there are jobs to be done, but with plants growing slowly, short days, inclement weather and sometimes frozen or wet ground, the opportunities are naturally limited. Winter is a time for planning and preparation, time to stand back, see one’s plot for what it is and dream big.

Not physically being in the garden is not an excuse for ignoring how it looks during winter. Chances are your garden will be visible from inside the house and maybe from the street, so it remains on show regardless of the season. Creating a riot of colour is too ambitious a goal, but it’s perfectly possible to plant strategically so that something is looking cheerful every day. Below are a handful of my favourite shrubs for winter colour, earning their keep whether it be through perfumed flowers, attractive foliage or bright berries. You may be familiar with many of them and there’s a reason for that: they do the job, and they do it well. I have thrown in a couple of wild cards should you, like me, be the unconventional type.

1) Mahonia (Oregon Grape)

My Cornish grandmother was an excellent gardener. She planted her garden for every season, but in particular the winter, when she would sit admiring the view towards her childhood home through a vast picture window. In the foreground she surveyed rivers of heather and dwarf conifers, rising into hills of glossy camellia, prickly berberis and honey-scented mahonia. The hybrid of choice back then was Mahonia x media ‘Charity’, which has a particularly long flowering season, starting in November. Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’ and Mahonia x media ‘Buckland’ both carry the RHS’ Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and so may be better options if you can track them down. Both were bred by Tom Wright at The Garden House in Devon. All of them will reward with spikes of bright yellow, fragrant flowers exploding from rosettes of spiky leaves during the winter. Bees adore them, and birds love the fruits that follow. Relatively unfussy to grow, but keep away from paths to avoid spearing yourself in the eye.

Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’ AGM is currently available from Ashwood Nurseries.

2) Garrya elliptica (Silk Tassel Bush)

When I was growing up, an enormous silk tassel bush used to loom over our front garden in a manner that I found most oppressive. For the majority of the year Garrya elliptica is a fairly glum and unremarkable shrub (Christopher Lloyd referred to it as ‘a big yawn’), although providing an excellent evergreen backdrop for other plants. Then in December and January it produces a multitude of fashionably grey-green tassels which transform it into a shrub for the Farrow and Ball generation. Garrya eliptica would look splendid planted against a house painted graphite grey or any of the smoky greens one sees used so frequently (I favour F&B Vert de Terre for all outside decoration). For me I’d need to balance it with something brighter, perhaps with orange berries or flowers, or in an arrangement with other grey-green foliage plants. The variety ‘James Roof’ comes highly recommended and has an Award of Garden Merit.

Garrya eliptica ’James Roof’ AGM is currently available from Burncoose Nurseries.

3) Viburnum tinus (laurustinus)

There are so many viburnums, but one that has the most to give in winter is Viburnum tinus, commonly known as laurustinus. Unfortunately we have all become rather weary of this shrub, thanks to its repeated inclusion in dreary landscaping projects. Blame the lazy designers, not the plant. Viburnum tinus is, simply put, ‘common’ and cheap to buy as a consequence. It’s also unfussy and therefore a breeze to grow. White flowers may be produced any time between autumn and spring, often in abundance. The varieties ‘Eve Price’, ‘Gwenllian’ and ‘French White’ all have AGMs, suggesting they are superior to the species, so seek them out if you are looking for something less banal. An alternative winter wonder would be V. x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, an upright shrub that looks like it’s had fluffy pink marshmallows skewered on naked stems when viewed from a distance. An almond fragrance is perhaps its finest attribute.

4) Coronilla valentina (Shrubby scorpion vetch)

Hot on the heels of three shrubs you can barely escape in winter, here’s one you see more rarely. Forming a compact hummock of glaucous evergreen foliage, Coronilla valentina is native to warmer climes, including Portugal, Spain, Malta and Croatia. The cultivar Coronilla valentina subsp. glauca ‘Citrina’ has an Award of Garden Merit and lighter yellow flowers than the species. Some feel this is more appealing than the species, but for me it’s just a matter of taste and where you are planting it. Coronilla flowers are delicately perfumed and attractive to bees. Personally I am a fan of the cultivar named ‘Variegata’ (pictured above) which combines canary yellow flowers with cream-edged leaves, but then I am a more-is-more plantsman. Plant in free draining soil in sun or very light shade for best results. Flowers can appear any time from November until March and frequently around Christmas time.

5) Correa (Australian Hardy Fuchsia)

I make no secret of my dislike of common plant names, and here’s two good reasons why: correas are neither reliably hardy (in the UK at least), nor are they fuchsias. They are, however, Australian, so I will make a small allowance for that. I am probably grumpy because I recently killed my beautiful Correa ‘Marian’s Marvel’ (pictured above) by overwatering and am desperate to replace it. It was a very silly mistake to make and I should have known better. Fortunately I have managed to keep scarlet and lime Correa reflexa ‘Brisbane Ranges’ and Correa reflexa alive, mainly by neglecting them. And therein lies the secret – keep them warm and on the dry side and they’ll do just fine. The Victorians imagined correas needed to be grown in a conservatory, but thanks to global warming they are worth taking a risk with outside in the southern counties and in sheltered spots, where they will flower from October until April. Of them all, C. ‘Marian’s Marvel’ remains a firm favourite of mine and one of the easiest correas to find in UK nurseries.

6) Euonymus japonicus (Japanese spindle)

In coastal towns like Broadstairs you’ll find Euonymus japonicus growing everywhere, and for good reason. It’s a dense shrub or small tree with evergreen leaves that are fabulously salt and wind tolerant. Plants can be clipped, trained or allowed to develop naturally into a huge billowing mound. Only in late summer might the display of glossy green leaves be marred by an attack of powdery mildew, but this generally does not last long and the plant recovers in time for winter. About now, in early January, the pink fruit bursts opens to reveal glossy orange berries inside. Close up they look little bug-eyed aliens. En masse the affect is extremely pretty and almost exotic. Euonymus japonicus is better than laurel in almost every way and certainly not as aggressive. Whilst not native to the UK, birds will forage the seed and sparrows find it irresistible as cover, sitting safely within and chattering all day long.

7) Loropetalum chinense (Chinese fringe flower)

I live in an area with typically mild winters, so forgive me for including another tender shrub in the mix. Surprise, surprise, Loropetalum chinense hails from temperate China, where it is as ubiquitous as privet is here in the UK. Low, arching branches slowly build up to form a pleasing, mounded shape. Like the witch hazels, to which it is related, Loropetalum chinense produces flowers in clusters at the end of short branches, each composed of thin, strap-like petals. ‘Fire Dance’ is a cultivar with reddish-purple leaves that fade to green in summer. ‘Black Pearl’ has exceptionally dark foliage and ‘Carolina Moonlight’ has greenish-white tassels over olive green foliage, so there are options if magenta is not your thing. I grow mine in a pot, where it flourishes provided it is watered regularly. The advantage is that it can be moved if the weather turns very cold, but the worst that usually happens is that the newest growth is scolded by frost. Any damaged areas regenerate quickly so it’s well worth a try in the South and West if you fancy something fabulous in your February garden.

8) Sarcoccoca ruscifolia (Sweet Box / Christmas Box)

The scent of Sarcococca ruscifolia blossom wafting through my French windows into the library is one of January’s few pleasures. For most of the year this is a plant you can forget about – small, unassuming, inoffensive and demanding no special attention. Then around Christmastime the tiny white flowers open and release their intoxicating, honeyed fragrance. If that’s not enough for you, Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ has a lot more going on, including, you guessed it, purple stems. The leaves are longer and paler and the flowers have a nice pinkish tinge. Works brilliantly with plum-coloured hellebores and early snowdrops and is tolerant of dry shade. What’s not to like?

9) Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cedar)

Conifers are slowly coming back into vogue, and at the forefront of that trend is Cryptomeria japonica. Like Ginkgo biloba, Cryptomeria japonica is a lone species, however there are many ornamental varieties in cultivation. Cryptomeria are defined by attractive, feathery foliage that resembles either moss or coral, depending on the variety. The reason for including Cryptomeria japonica here is that many cultivars have foliage which turns an attractive shade of coppery-purple in winter. A good choice if you have a small garden is Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Compacta’, which takes many years to reach 6ft (the basic species reaches 15ft in 10 years and keeps on going), or Cryptomeria japonica ‘Pygmaea’ which only grows 1 inch per year and is best suited to a rock or gravel garden. At the other end of the spectrum, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Yoshino’ is gracious yet huge, so plant well away from the house and stand back for an impressive display of smoke-tinted needles.

10) Camellia

One cannot better camellias for their contribution to the garden from autumn until late spring. They are the roses of winter and almost as many and various as their summer-flowering cousins. Alas they are not best suited to alkaline soils or to areas that suffer drought, especially in late summer when the flower buds are formed. Hence they are rarely seen in the ‘Far East’ where I reside owing to the preponderance of chalk and low rainfall. However there is no excuse for not growing a camellia in a pot, wherever one lives, provided it is filled with well-drained ericaceous compost and positioned where the roots can be doused regularly with rainwater. I’ve had camellias stay compact and happy this way for years; it’s all about choosing the right varieties.

A favourite, and similar in appearance to the unidentified blooms pictured above is Camellia x williamsii ‘St Ewe’ which despite being huge in the ground, stays reasonably compact in a large pot. Currently we grow ‘Nuccio’s Pearl’ and ‘Margaret Davis’ AGM in pots and they seem extremely happy. TV presenter and plantsman Nick Bailey recommends Camellia x vernalis ‘Yuletide’ for scarlet winter blooms – so much more elegant than a poinsettia. Camellia sasanqua ‘Narumi-gata’ is the winter incarnation of the humble dog rose and fragrant to boot. TFG.