The majority of people are inspired to garden when the sun come out in May. As enthusiasm rises visits are made to Garden Centres such as mine and plants with seductive little May blooms are selected to fill the gaps in the border. Whilst there is nothing wrong with that many winter delights are sadly missed. Its worth taking a moment now to appreciate the amazing winter colour and it’s not all about flowers!
There are an endless varieties of birch varying in colour (pink, copper, silver, red, brown) and height. I love birch (Betula) trees. I know for some gardens they can get a little tall but where they can reach upwards they are not broad and bulky, they are tall and elegant and the foliage is generally fine feathered and pretty. The long colourful trunks are brimming with character and charm. I have said many time how glorious it was to see a coppice of silver birch at Alnwick Castle on a frosty morning under planted with emerging snow drops. As glorious as silver bark is don't think that is where the glorious barks story terminates. In the Oxford Botanic Garden there is a beautiful albosinensis birch with the most incredible ruddy orange trunk. I have never felt so compelled to hug a tree! It’s a well established tree and the curator was not sure exactly which variety it was but looking in my books it could possibly be ‘China Rose’. If you do go in the Gardens don't miss the long avenue of silver birch by the water’s edge which is under planted with hellebores and daffodils in the spring followed by foxgloves later on. I grow betula pendula ‘Youngii’ which is a weeping birch. It doesn’t get too tall, maturing between 5-10 metres not 15-20 metres and the crown spreads bringing lots of character. I have also pulled two large long Betula pendula together to form a mythical archway.
If you are looking for a colourful bark in a small space look no further than Prunus Serrula ‘Tibetica’ known as the Tibetan Cherry Tree, we will also have ‘Frilly Frocks’ a new variety with an even more compact head. Both have the classic ruddy copper bark. Like ‘Youngii’ Betula ‘Tibetan’ was given the Award of Garden Merit by the RHS and both have been feature trees in many winning Chelsea gardens.
I have to finally mention the Acer griseum known to most as the paper bark maple because of its paper like appearance. It is a small (5-10m) magnificent tree needing a little bit of shelter. As the paper bark peels back a cinnamon bark is revealed underneath. It has an outstandingly dramatic appearance. I cannot miss mentioning the snake bark maple Acer capillaries, as the name suggest the bark has a wonderful snaky skin. Another equally amazing bark.
Shrubs in Flower
I had a winter wander around my Nurseries and found some fascinating foliage, flowers and berries.
The winter favourites are easy to spot like Mahonia xmedia with its multiple long plumes of yellow erupting from its holly like foliage. It’s a wonderfully tough evergreen and graces my winter borders. I trim it into shape from time to time so its doesn’t grow too much of a trunk.
Witch hazel makes an outstanding but unusually stringy flower in orange, red or yellow. I would file this in the primadonna plant category with the peonies and roses because the flower is so unique. It’s fully hardy but prefers a lime free soil so best grown in a container if you live locally to Buckingham.
Cornus (dog wood varieties) cannot be matched for the stem colour.
They are lovely grouped together with a complete mix of colours including dark red, lime green and orange. I’ve been told to visit Waddesdon House Garden to see large plantings of them.
The orange sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is a lovely addition to any garden.The autumn foliage is golden and the stems are electric orange. Its also a more compact variety than the dark red alba sibirica.
Don’t stop with cornus when looking for winter stem interest. Some of the small Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) have very colourful red stems and the prickly stems of the Rubus cockburnianus, described as a ghostly bramble, can look very dramatic in winter. We also have the orange/limey green willow (Salix alba ‘Vitellina’) probably one of our toughest shrubs or small trees.
Winter Fragrant Shrubs
I noticed the Viburnum tinus white buds are opening.
This classic shrub is the perfect back drop or even hedge for any garden. As the flowers are white in winter and early spring and the foliage is a study green and the leaves are not clumsy large waxy things like laurel it does not over dominate. It belongs almost everywhere and it is everywhere in my garden and I don’t mind! There are a few varieties ‘Eve Price’ and ‘Gwenllian’ both with AGM medals and now ‘Spirit’ which is a little more compact.
I came across Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’ in flower, highly sought after for its glorious spring fragrance. This is a good evergreen shrub for shade and you will smell it before you see it.
Another scented delight is Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ (AGM) the woody leafless stems are clothed in sweet scented pretty pink flowers. Lonicera fragrantissima as the name suggests brings more fragrance to the winter garden. It is a simple green unassuming shub in the honeysuckle family with sweet tubular bell shaped flowers. Last of the winter fragrant favourites is the Christmas box Sarcococca. The fragrance is fabulous. Again it has little white flowers with a strong scent which helps the bees locate the nectar rich flower. The dark green foliage is evergreen and the flowers are followed by dark glossy berries.
Winter Berried Shrubs
Berries as usually winter bird food but while it is reasonably mild we are still seeing the autumn berries on cotoneaster, hawthorne and some malus trees. I think they will disappear quickly if it snows! They will take the sweet ones first.
Catkins are fabulously important additions to our gardens providing crucial nectar supplies for the bumble bees.
The long lambs tails on the Hazel bushes are a winter delight and an absolute picture when coated with icy frost. Corylus avellana will have the standard green leaves and maxima ‘Purpurea’ has dark purple leaves as the name suggests.
I have celebrated the lovely birch bark but note that they also have little catkins!
The Kilmarnock willow or the weeping pussy willow has soft little furry catkins. It’s a perfect little tree and can look lovely in a pot.
I should say take a look at the ghostly silver Garrya elliptica but not this year! Mine has but one catkin and has alway been shrouded in a waterfall of catkins. I feel mine has struggled with years of drought and then snow and has decided to take a break. I am sure they will be back.
Top Winter Perennials
Helleborus is an excellent place to start. We have the lovely helleborus Niger which graces most garden centres and its probably the most common bought, but there are so many growable varieties foetidus (stinking hellebore),sterni, argustifolia and orientalis (known as the Lenten rose) Well known for their fabulous hybrids are the breeders Ashwood, Harvington. Harvington have brought some amazing durable double orientalis varieties. Recently we have seen a lot or Eric Smiths or ericsmithii varieties come to the market. These are a cross between sernii and helleborus niger. Consequently all the varieties have the best of both.
Winter Sunshine is a joy, the glowing flowers stand above the foliage more and have a much longer flowering period.
Take a look at Erysimum ‘Winter Joy’, perfect for this time of year. It begins its mauve flowering before the excellent Bowles Mauve so we can enjoy it sooner and it is a little more compact. It is a joy to have a definite lavender flower lifting our borders now. Great to grow in our heavy clay soils around here as it is related to wall flowers.
Euphorbia are about to get interesting. Every year we seem to excel in new silver or multicoloured winter interest foliage varieties like ‘Tiger Eyes’ and ‘Ascot Rainbow’ but the old evergreen spreading ones, like robbiae and wulfenii, still have a home in most gardens and make their early return. Oxford Botanic have the collection and they are an absolute picture when the sun highlights the unusual golden flower heads in early spring.
If you need that extra bit of colour look no further than little violas, winter heathers,thyme,
mini Cyclamen hederifolium coums the snowdrops and the golden aconites (eranthis) appearing now.