Evergreens which flower during the dark, cold season
My last article in this series (and for this year) is about the courageous evergreen plants that flower despite the short, dark days and low temperatures. The winterflowering Heathers I already mentioned in my article last week. There are several which I won’t include as they are not reliably hardy even in the more temperate areas of Germany (like Camellias for example or Clematis cirrhosa), but do look at these few winter beauties.
Food for the soul and for insects
These winter flowerers and early spring flowerers are very important. Not only do they lift the spirits at a dreary time of year, they are vital feeding stations for starving insects. On sunny winterdays there are always hungry solitary wild bees foraging for nectar, and they are drawn to the flowers by the strong scent. This is the reason why almost all of these winterflowering plants produce fabulous clouds of divine scent on sunny days, but none when it is dull and wet, as then the insects do not fly.
Most of the evergreens that will produce these early flowers, are at risk of freezing during prolonged spells of extreme cold temperatures. It is worth therefore giving them a sheltered spot where they are protected from prevailing winds and strong winter sunshine. Plant them in the vicinity of a building, or protected by other evergreens such as bamboos, rhododendrons or conifers.
Plant them close by
Make sure to make space for these early treasures, there where you will be able to enjoy them to the full. No point in planting a winterflower at the bottom of the garden, where you may not go to for days on end. The front garden, or along the path to your housedoor, garage, compost heap or other regularly frequented haunt are all areas that benefit from these early joyful creatures.
Mahonia is a member of the Berberis family, which is easy to recognize when you look more closely at the flowers. Their tough holly-like prickly foliage may seem unfriendly, but their divine lemony scented yellow flowers make up for any shortcomings. They will thrive in poor soils, in partial shade and do not mind dry areas making them very useful garden plants.
The common Mahonia aquifolium is the least showy of all, but is uncomplicated to the point of becoming a nuisance in some gardens (the birds will help to spread the seeds as they like the edible blue fruits and they reproduce through runners). The flowers of this species are short and fat, but there are numerous more attractive forms with elegant slender flowerspikes and much more handsome growth habit, some of which are reliably hardy.
Particularly interesting are Mahonia x media hybrids, which arose from crossings between M. japonica and M. lomariifolia. They are very architectural with strong upright growth and attractively shaped foliage. Some the hybrids can reach as much as 4 meters in height in sheltered spaces, though usually they tend to be about 2 meters.
‘Winter Sun’ is a popular variety that will grow this high offering a good structure and long flowering period from January through to March. The strongly scented yellow flowers stand proud at the end of strong, thick upright stems. The mid-green foliage may develop orange autumnal colour. ‘Charity’ will reach about 2,5 meters and flowers from February till March.
Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis
A favourite of mine is a relative of box. Its English common name is “Christmas Box”, as in mild weather it can start flowering as early as Christmas. Easy to recognize when you see its un-remarkable small white tufts of flowers. They may be small, but the scent is blissful and will catch passers-by by surprise. This tough, small evergreen will grow well in the shade of other plants. This will also give them an added degree of winter protection as in severe cold they may be knocked back by the frost and is therefore useful as underplanting under other taller shrubs. Ten years ago, it was rarely seen in German nurseries, today it has become more common.
Evergreen shrub – Skimmia
A much more common small evergreen shrub is Skimmia. Although strictly speaking their flowers will not open till the end of winter, their buds are already proudly on display since autumn and are particularly attractive in the variety Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’.
This wonderfully scented shrub has dark green leaves, a little reminiscent of Rhododendron leaves, will reach 1 to 1,5m in height in sheltered areas where the temperature will not drop below -15°C. Why include this and not some of the other, slightly tender ones? It remains small, and is therefore easier to find it a very sheltered spot and provide it with some additional winter protection, especially in the first few years.
Of course not all wintergreen flowering plants are woody. There are a few other early heroes you must include in your garden for the wintertime. The majority of perennials are dormant at this time of year, but the hellebores (see article 24. November 2019) are now in full swing.
I will finish the year with reminding you of one of my absolute favourites: the cyclamen. The early spring flowering ones C. coum, have unfolded their attractively-patterned rounded leaves in autumn, and will start flowering in the next six weeks or so (weather permitting). Ideal for a dry shady place at the base of a tree or under shrubs, they will bring great joy at a dull time of year.
Myself, and the Garden Academy will have a short winter break. The Garden academy will be closed form Monday 23rd December till Friday 10th January. From Saturday 11th our door will be open again, the greenhouses filled with the first early flowers. I will be back the following weekend, by which time you may have noticed the first signs that the days are getting longer again! Have a wonderful, peaceful Christmas and a happy healthy New Year!