Jewels of the Winter Garden – 20 Indispensable Plants for Winter Colour and Scent

Reading time 21 minutes

Gardens in winter have so much to offer. Designers often wax lyrical about the delights of ‘structure’, by which they mean woody plants, particularly evergreens, that reveal their shape and volume when herbaceous plants are resting below ground. Nature lovers will draw your attention to thick hedges of ivy, piles of decomposing leaves and log piles that provide a refuge for insects, mammals and amphibians. The plantsman will be down on his or her knees, pointing out the tender tips of narcissi and shy snowdrop flowers nodding in the breeze. Meanwhile, the romanticist will catch a faint whiff of Christmas box or daphne in the bracing air and be transported to warmer climes by their sweet, tantalising fragrance. Add all these elements together and you have a garden full of riches, if you choose to discover them.

While the summer garden is a smorgasbord to be demolished with relish, the winter garden offers a tasting menu of scents and colour to be savoured slowly. Many plants that provide winter interest are unassuming, even invisible for the rest of the year, which is one of several reasons why they are often overlooked. Rarely will a gardener proclaim how glorious their Algerian irisies (Iris unguicularis) or grey-leaved euryops (Euryops pectinatus) are looking in midsummer, but at this time of year they won’t hesitate to show them off. It’s often said that you should position winter-flowering plants near the house, so that they may be enjoyed at close quarters. There’s something to be said for that when they’re compact and scented, but I’d recommend planting them at a distance from the back door, both to give you a reason to venture out on a cold day and to preserve such prestigious positions for plants that have greater year-round appeal.

Narcissus ‘Rijenveld’s Early Sensation’ photographed on Boxing Day in Highgate, London.

Because winter interest plants are few and far between, they ought to be especially cherished. Perversely, I find that familiarity breeds contempt, up to and including the point at which spring arrives and suburbia is splattered like a Jackson Pollock with acid-yellow forsythia and candy-pink flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). This is plant snobbery at work – if something is easy to grow and found everywhere, surely it can’t be in good taste? I don’t agree. We should have a little more respect and admiration for tough-yet-attractive plants that have evolved in such a way as to fill a niche in the year when little else is attractive. They are good ‘doers’ and, unlike their soft summer cousins, have an inherent toughness which often means they remain looking beautiful for months, whatever the elements throw at them.

If aesthetics are not sufficient to tempt you into planting for winter colour, then consider the wildlife perspective. Dense hedges of ivy, star Jasmine or yew provide shelter and roosting sites for birds: the bright berries of cotoneaster and pyracantha provide an excellent food source. It matters not if they are native plants, so long as they serve nature well. Snowdrops, winter aconites and early narcissi are magnets for bees. (Incidentally, it’s probable that each of these bulbous plants has been introduced to the UK from continental Europe, although we now consider them part of our native flora.)

Arum italicum subsp. italicum ‘Marmoratum’

If you’re gazing out of your living room window, wondering why there’s not more to see in your garden, then the first thing to do is get outside and take a proper look. You may be surprised by a resilient rose or the marbled leaves of Arum italicum subsp. italicum ‘Marmoratum’ pushing through the frozen ground. If you can find nothing to marvel at, then now’s the time to take action. Apart from spring-flowering bulbs that need to be planted in the autumn, most winter-interest plants can be purchased and planted between now (mid-February) and the end of April, provided the ground isn’t frozen. (Snowdrops are best planted or transplanted ‘in the green’, i.e. once their flowers begin to fade.) One good way to discover what’s looking good at any given time is to visit your local garden centre and see what they’re promoting front-of-house. Keep in mind that flowering plants may have been ‘brought on’ in a greenhouse or tunnel and so they could be blooming a week or two in advance of their natural timing. Weather conditions also make a huge difference – many winter-flowering plants have evolved to stop and start their development depending on the air and soil temperature. A second option is to visit one of the many gardens that open during the winter, including the RHS gardens and various arboreta. Here you will see first-hand that flowers are anything but the main event in the depths of winter; the smooth, white bark of silver birch (Betula pendula) or the filigree fronds of soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum) are just as alluring.

An alternative option, especially on a cold, blustery day, is to light a fire, make a cup of tea and peruse my shortlist below. Then search the Internet for a reputable supplier and await delivery.

Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidori’, the Japanese apricot

If you can find space for five or even ten of my recommended plants – a mixture of trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and bulbs – you will soon have a winter garden to be proud of.

20 Indispensable Plants for Winter Colour and Scent

Trees

  1. Betula utilis var jacquemontii ‘Grayswood Ghost’ AGM – what a stupendous all-rounder the birch is. Our native species Betula pendula is a hard to improve upon, but this cultivated form of Himalayan birch is prized for its especially luminescent white bark. Underplant with snowdrops, aconites, hellebores and scillas for a fairytale display.
  2. Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ AGM – conifers are enjoying a modest renaissance and rightly so. This slow-growing form of the lodgepole pine from Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains produces needles that turn bright yellow in late autumn. In spring they revert to lime green again. A fabulous companion for our friend the birch, above.
  3. Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ – this flowering cherry blooms on and off from November until April. Don’t plant in the expectation of a blizzard of blossom; flowers will be produced in flurries whenever the weather is mild. Makes a fantastic resource for foraging bees. Plant with a dark hedge as a backdrop to show off the blush-pink blossom. For something punchier, the Japanese apricot, Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidori’ AGM offers a daring flash of cerise.
Daphne bholua

Shrubs & Climbers

  1. Daphne bholua ‘Jaqueline Postill’ AGM – I’ve never quite recovered from the thrill of seeing daphnes growing wild in the forests of Nepal and Bhutan. Daphnes are slow-growing shrubs that prefer minimal interference, so plant and then leave well alone. Producing white flowers flushed wine red in January and February, the perfume produced is pervasive and potent.
  2. Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ AGM – sweet box is a tough, tolerant shrub that has many virtues. Alas, some of its kin lack the kind of ‘wow factor’ that modern gardeners seek in a plant. This cultivar has the advantage of pinky purple, flower-bearing stems. Sweet box will never be the centre of attention, not least because its intoxicating fragrance tends to drift so far that people can’t tell where it originates from. And yet, it’s essential in any winter garden.
  3. Camellia sasanqua ‘Narumigata’ AGM – living in a milder part of the UK, I generally resist the temptation to recommend plants that are a touch on the tender side. But what fun is gardening if no risks are taken? Camellia sasanqua ‘Narumigata’ produces single white flowers with a pink edge from October onwards. Although hardy to -10ºC, it will thank you for shelter from cold winds and some warmth in the form of a sunny wall. Must have acid soil and/or ericaceous compost.
  4. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ – there are not many shrubs capable of ingniting passions during the winter months, but a massed planting of this superb dogwood, lit by the winter sun, will awaken even the deadest of hearts. Pruned hard every spring, almost to the ground, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ will produce a flaming crucible of stems in shades of yellow, orange and red by the following autumn.
  5. Chimonanthus praecox – wintersweet, as its name suggests, is all about the intoxicating fragrance. The flowers themselves are pale yellow and waxy – the colour, texture and translucency of grated cheddar. Slow to grow and sometimes shy to flower. Once it gets going it’s wonderful to have around.
  6. Clematis cirrhosa – when I was a lad, and that’s a good thirty years ago now, winter flowering clematis were a novelty. Now there are several cultivars on the market, including ‘Jingle Bells’, ‘Advent Bells’ and ‘Christmas Surprise’. As the names suggest, they can be expected to be flower for the festive season. C. cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ has white flowers finely speckled with red, and ‘Landsdowne Gem’ is a more heavily speckled, sometimes solid wine-red. These are Mediterranean plants so they need sun and shelter as well as plenty of space to ramble.
  7. Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’ AGM – Okay, so your granny had a mahonia in her garden and you thought it was gangly, boring and slighly dangerous. Me too. It’s true, mahonias can be a little stiff and static; these days that’s applauded as ‘architectural’. However, come the late autumn and winter mahonias produce lavish plumes of yellow flowers that smell like lily-of-the-valley. Grown well, which requires space and artful pruning, a mahonia will make a handsome feature at the back of a border. Here, other plants will hide its bare legs and you won’t impale yourself on the spiky leaves.
  8. Euryops pectinatus – all around the town where I live, mounds of silver-grey ferny foliage are transformed by masses of yellow daisies dancing in the air just after New Year. The sheer abundance of flowers seems so improbable at such a miserable time that one can’t help but do a double take. Going by the common name of ‘grey-leaved euryops’ (so uninventive), this isn’t an entirely hardy shrub. Fortunately, cuttings root incredibly easily so a cold weather loss is a disappointment rather than a tragedy.
Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’ AGM

Perennials

  1. Iris unguicularis – The Algerian iris (below) is one of the most unassuming, uninteresting plants in a garden for around ten months of the year – a dense tussock of grassy leaves that will tolerate poor soil, drought and almost total neglect. Then, just as you’re questioning why you bothered planting such a dowdy thing, it starts to produce flowers of the utmost delicacy and brilliance. Each petal is as thin as parachute silk and a sumptuous shade of lilac. Despite their looks, the flowers are completely weatherproof and will last well in a small vase indoors.
  2. Helleborus orientalis / Helleborus x hybridus – although snowdrops attract the most fanatics, hellebores are not far behind them in terms of devotees. It’s easy to understand why. Hellebores can be in flower from February until April and they come in all shades from white to almost black, although not blue (thank heavens!). Garden centres will be full of beautiful, often expensive cultivars but, if you’re patient, they can be grown easily from seed too. Propagated this way, you may get some interesting combinations of form and colour. I have recently planted ‘Anna’s Red’ (pinkish-red) and ‘Glenda’s Gloss’ (apple-blossom pink) but there are hundreds of others to choose from.
  3. Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’ – I first saw this pretty, low-growing fern growing at the Herrenhausen Palace in Hannover when I was perhaps fourteen years old. I have adored it ever since. The lacy foliage always looks wonderful, although the previous seasons’ growth is best removed in March, to allow new, furry fronds space to unfurl.
  4. Vinca difformis – In the event of a nuclear holocaust, you could bet that vincas would survive. The intermediate periwinkle, Vinca difformis, is slighltly less bombproof than V. minor and V. major, but tough nevertheless. A fantastic groundcover plant, it will produce ice-blue to snow-white flowers all through the winter and into spring. A little rampant, so plant where it can run riot without annoying you.
Iris unguicularis, the Algerian iris

Bulbs

  1. Narcissus ‘Rijenvelds Early Sensation’ and N. ‘Spring Dawn’ – there are a handful of plants that I regularly wish I’d planted more of – these two daffodils are among them. Occasionally they will be in flower for Christmas and certainly during January. Creating bold splashes of colour, even in the depths of winter these cheerful flowers remind us that spring is only weeks away.
  2. Eranthis hyemalis – the winter aconite is the perfect companion for snowdrops. They bloom in tandem at a time when we crave the sun and recall how splendid our gardens looked last summer. Do not overlook these precious, diminutive flowers. They bring hope, joy and food for our beloved bees.
  3. Iris reticulata – many flowers have gap in their colour spectrum when it comes to blue. Irises make no such omission. Indeed, they have claimed blue for themselves, producing every shade from the palest ice blue to the darkest ink with some spine-tingling shades in between. The many cultivars of Iris reticulata flower early, thereafter producing long, grassy leaves of little merit. The bulbs are very inexpensive to buy, so plant them liberally – by which I mean in hundreds rather than tens – in pots, troughs, window boxes and at the front of borders – anywhere the blooms won’t get trampled or spattered with mud.
  4. Crocus tommasinianus ‘Barr’s Purple’ – I couldn’t justly compile a list of winter-flowering plants without including at least one crocus. A more ethereal flower it is hard to imagine. Carried on fine white stems, the translucent purple petals form an elegant chalice around a boss of bright orange stamens and stigma. The problem, I find, is that the flowers are rarely upright for long, too readily cast down by heavy rain, snow or marauding animals. However fleeting and fragile their beauty, these crocuses are worth planting in the largest drifts you can accommodate.
  5. Arum italicum subsp. italicum ‘Marmoratum’ – plants with exotic-looking leaves large enough to rival a fussy house plant are rarer than hen’s teeth in the winter garden. This striking arum is in leaf from late autumn until mid-spring after which it dies down leaving short spikes of berries that turn pillar box red in autumn. Toxic to most mammals if ingested so plant where children and pets are unlikely to venture. TFG.
Eranthis hyemalis, the winter aconite

Categories: Container gardening, daffodils, Flowers, Foliage, Perennials, Photography, Plants, Trees and Shrubs, Weather

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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17 comments On "Jewels of the Winter Garden – 20 Indispensable Plants for Winter Colour and Scent"

  1. An excellent selection! The Mahonia has caught my eye as I have been thinking of some evergreen shrub for a spot in the garden.

      1. Yes, it’s one we grow here also. A good one. A different effect/texture to many others.

  2. There is so much to bloom through our mild winters, that I should not comment here. Euryops with either green or gray foliage is less common than is had been. (It had been overly common and cheapened.) It last for only a few years, but can be grown from cutting or layers. Bergenia is doing well here now.

    1. Bergenias are super hardy. When they are well grown they are absolutely beautiful. It’s a plant my grandmother grew and which I always admire in other people’s gardens. I don’t have enough space to do a bergenia justice here, but an excellent addition to my list.

      1. Ha! That is how our professors described it even back in about 1986 or so; “something you would see in ‘grandma’s garden'”. It was already old fashioned thirty five years ago. Perhaps that is why I am fond of it. Bergenia crassifolia is all I ever see here. Bergenia cordifolia is somewhat rare. The names are used interchangeably though.

  3. Lovely piece, thank you Dan. I plant all house bulbs out and let them naturalize, and there are other early camellias, particularly Cornish Snow, a good doer even in a pot.

    1. Hi Sally. Yes, we do the same. All of last year’s hyacinths are planted out at the allotment and although the flowers will be much smaller, they’ll be prettier for cutting.

      I am a fan of ‘Cornish Snow’ and also ‘St. Ewe’. I used to have a huge one in a planter but I had to leave it behind when I moved from my first home.

  4. Thank you for the tour of “winter” plants. I’m in US zone 4, so most of these can only be enjoyed through photos, and that’s what I do! I like the new look of your blog, by the way.

      1. Most of these plants won’t winter here. I do like to see them in the more Southern gardens. I enjoy pictures of these plants. They give me hope for spring. I will look forward to your next post.
        Your new look on the blog is very crisp.

  5. Thank you for the feast for the eyes. I looked up a lot of the plants listed, and also the ones in the comments section. I’m following your advice to plant Iris reticulata more liberally. I have a small Chimonanthus praecox that’s never bloomed for me. I’ll feel like an expert gardener when it blooms. I’m looking forward to getting outside in the cold and sun and see where the scents take me. I also like the new look for the blog, as well as any plant found in grandma’s garden.

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