by Brian Minter
A wealth of flowering shrubs have been blooming since November, though slightly interrupted by a cold spell. Many folks have yet to discover the beauty winter flowering shrubs can bring to a winter garden. To me, a fragrant Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis), blooming in mid-winter, is more special than a whole row of flowering plums in May. Winter flowering shrubs provide that lift we need during those cold, grey days, and they bring a gentle reminder that spring is on its way. Let me unfold a chronological map of winter treasures that everyone can enjoy.
The star-like yellow blossoms of Jasmine nudiflorum are open now and will continue to flower until mid-March. I recently saw an artistic bouquet of these branches in someone's home, and the old-fashioned charm of these flowers was a match for any spring bouquet. These shrubs are actually a semi-vine and look smashing against an old wall or rustic fence, and if you can provide a south or west exposure, the blossoms will appear earlier and bloom more reliably throughout the winter.
In colder parts of the Lower Mainland, winter flowering Japanese cherry trees (Prunus 'Autumnalis') are rather fickle when it comes to early blossoms, but in Vancouver there is a row of them along Nanaimo Street north of First Avenue which actually starts flowering in November and continues almost non-stop until April. How many other trees do you know that tease you with colour for almost half the year?
I have mentioned deciduous winter flowering Viburnum 'Pink Dawn' so many times, but it is still one of my winter favourites. Its fragrant clusters of tiny pink blossoms just never seem to quit. It will throw out a few blossoms in fall, but from early February onward, more and more blossoms will open until this shrub is a mass of pink through to April. We too often overlook a distant cousin of Viburnum 'Pink Dawn', the evergreen Viburnum tinus 'Spring Bouquet'. It is full of white blossoms now that look exceptional when contrasted with its bronze buds and steel blue berries. I like 'Spring Bouquet' because, if it is located in a protected, sunny location, it never seems to quit blooming. Its branches are nice to bring inside as cuts, and they make a great combination with fresh daffodils.
I have a great weakness for witch hazel, especially the fragrant yellow 'mollis'. Cut a few branches from a vine for indoors, and your whole home will be filled with a most exotic perfume. Move over gardenias! Although they don't have a great perfume, the orange variety, 'Jelina' and the red 'Diane' are a must for the home garden. By the way, surround the red ones with Snowdrops, and you will have the makings of an award-winning combination.
One of the less known winter gems is the series of winter flowering Oregon Grape, or Mahonia. The variety ‘Winter Sun’ is in full bloom right now and is just as beautiful in sun or shade.
Winter heathers, or more correctly Erica carneas, are very important to all our gardens and are being used more frequently now. They perform beautifully in perennial borders, but don't forget, they make sensational ground covers too! Have you ever seen a bed of white birch clumps surrounded by 'Springwood' white heather? If not, try planting one because winter will never look better. Plant them in groupings of threes or fives for more impact. Interesting dwarf conifers also look better when planted with such companions. Keep your ericas well drained though, or root rot will put an abrupt end to your display.
As the last leg of winter turns the corner, a whole host of winter-blooming shrubs celebrate its passing. Chimonanthus, or Wintersweet, is in bloom now, and its fragrant, light yellow/stained purple flowers are a delight few gardeners have enjoyed ... probably because it is so hard to find. If you can find one, grab it! Its perfume alone is worth the price.
I am very fond of Corylopsis pauciflora, or Buttercup Winter Hazel. It is not yet in bloom, but it looks so neat in any landscape situation. Bell-shaped, primrose yellow flowers droop gracefully in clusters throughout this low spreading shrub, and if you plant some purple 'Wanda' primulas or miniature blue Iris reticulata around the base, you’ll create another great combination.
Cornus mas, or the Cornelian Cherry, is a February bloomer, and although its blossoms are smaller than the Chinese witch hazel, I think it is well worth a spot in your garden. I am not going to mention its edible red fruit or charming reddish purple autumn foliage either.
February Daphne (Daphne mezereum) blooms faithfully for me each year after Valentine's Day. Its rosy purple flowers appear along its branches before the leaves, and their perfume rates a '10'!
After mid-March, the spring flowering shrubs take over, and we forget all about winter for another year. Next fall, however, when the last of the gorgeous fall foliage disappears, wouldn't it be nice to look forward to these delightful winter flowers? Well, you can only enjoy them if you plant them now, so visit your favourite garden shop and discover the pleasures of winter flowering shrubs.