Chinese witch hazel

winter jasmine, yellow flowers, Jasminum nudiflorum

Winter Scents and Flowers

Summer in the garden is now a fading memory, but gardeners may be planning for next year, considering new plants for their gardens. In this fortunate part of the world (Zone 8 or 9 to those familiar with the USDA climate zones), winter flowers are starting, with more anticipated. For gardeners lucky enough to live in similar climates, here is a short list of plants that bloom between November and March, most of them with delightful perfumes.

IMG_3065Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) is in its first flush of bloom in my garden. I love the way it hangs down the trellis, displaying its bright yellow funnel-shaped flowers. The buds are yellow with red tints, and should keep opening at least until February, unless we get brutal weather. Sadly, despite its name, which suggests fragrance, winter jasmine has no scent at all. But Anna’s hummingbirds, who are year-round residents here, visit the flowers regularly. The plant is easy to grow and to propagate, as stems that touch the ground form roots at the point of contact. In fact, I have to keep an eye on it to prevent unwanted rooting.

violets, Viola odorata

The common sweet violet (Viola odorata) is one of those near-weeds that moves in and makes itself at home. I’ve had to thin it out in a few spots to keep it from overrunning other plants. But on relatively warm winter days, its perfume wafts around and reminds me why I’m happy to have this plant in the garden. It pretty much takes care of itself. Deer nibble it sometimes, but it’s tough and regrows. It’s even moved into the lawn, which is fine with me.

Chinese witch hazel, Hamamelis species

Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis and hybrids) is described thus in one gardening manual: “… one of the most uniquely beautiful of winter-flowering shrubs when its vigorous upright branches are set with its spidery, bright yellow, richly fragrant flowers.” I couldn’t resist that, so resolved to plant one of these marvelous shrubs in my garden. The book says witch hazels “…thrive in deep, well-drained soil, preferably sandy loam enriched with plenty of leafmold or compost. They prefer light woodland conditions, but do well in full sun, especially if given ample moisture during the growing season.”*

Chines witch hazel foliageMy witch hazel is situated in conditions similar to those, so it should thrive, meaning bloom, but mine hardly ever does — only once or twice in 25 years. I suspect the problem is insufficient moisture in summer. Our increasingly warm, dry summers don’t bode well for future success, and in fact my plant looked less than happy at the end of last summer. But its shape is elegant even without blooms, and it sometimes has good fall colour. I know of several plants in the vicinity that bloom regularly, exuding their wonderful fragrance on January days, so I live in hope.

Spurge laurel, Daphne laureola

Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola) really is a weed shrub, an undesirable alien that has invaded woodlands in this region. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who gardens near woods that are as yet without it (sort of like ivy, which has overrun most natural parks around here). However, it was already present in this garden when I arrived, so I’ve kept a few plants. Needless to say, it grows well in dry, rooty soil, and its leathery black-green foliage looks good in dark corners at the edge of the garden where not much else will grow. The black berries don’t seem to appeal to birds, so the seeds tend to sprout close to the parent plant, which makes the seedlings easy to find and pull up. Its best feature, as far as I’m concerned, is the haunting perfume of the little green flowers. I catch whiffs of it on February nights, when I’m checking the max/min thermometer on the back porch. The scent induces a nameless nostalgia, to the point that I worked a mention of it into one of my novels.

Sweet box (Sarcococca species) is a shrub I don’t have here as yet, but having read that it “tolerates dry shade,” I’m thinking about where I might plant one. It’s strongly perfumed, as I know from encounters with it on walks in my neighbourhood. It’s a broad-leaved evergreen, 3-4 feet (1 metre) tall, with flowers that look like those of witch hazel, except they’re white. One of the species (S. hookeriana) is said to “spread easily by underground stems,” which raises a red flag for me. I already have too many shrubs with that tendency. So perhaps S. confusa or S. ruscifolia are the ones to look for.

winter honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima

Winter-blooming honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is a shrubby plant (unlike the climbing honeysuckles). It can get quite tall (15 feet or 5 metres) and almost as wide, but can be pruned as hard as needed to keep it within bounds. It’s a semi-evergreen, which means it sheds weirdly yellow-grey leaves practically year round. Some of the previous year’s branches wither in summer and look seriously ugly, screaming to be pruned. On the plus side, it blooms in late winter and early spring. The flowers are white and sort of semi-transparent, so they don’t look like much, but they produce an intensely sweet lemon scent, especially on still, damp evenings. For that I’m willing to forgive its ugly duckling qualities.

 

*Quotations from Trees and Shrubs for Coastal British Columbia Gardens by John A. Grant and Carol L. Grant. 2nd edition, 1990.

 

 

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January Flowers

I used to garden in a place with real winters. The ground froze and the garden was sealed under a foot or more of snow for several months. It was closed for the season. There was no question of any garden work during those months. The only thing to do was look at seed and plant catalogues and dream.

Here, winter is just a pause, not a shutdown. Today it’s 10 C (50 F). The only snow is on distant mountain peaks and the grass is green and wet. Everything is wet, and in fact there’s about as much garden work to do as in the frozen, snow-covered situation. I can’t even mow the grass, never mind dig or edge. Pruning may be done, but that’s about all. And starting seeds in the house, of course, but that’s not really a garden job, since it’s done inside.

But things are blooming — in January, one of the longest, coldest, darkest months of the year. When I moved back to the coast more than twenty years ago I couldn’t wait to install shrubs and other plants that would bloom in January.

First among them was a Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis). Unfortunately, the plant I ended up with, and possibly its location (in dry sandy soil, shaded by maples and an ailanthus much of the summer when the buds would be forming) has resulted in almost no bloom. Very disappointing. There have been only three years out of those twenty when it has produced any flowers at all. This is one of those years, why I’m not sure, because the conditions under which the plant is growing haven’t changed. Maybe last summer was perfect in some way. In any case, the little tree is in full bloom right now — not spectacularly, compared to better plants in happier situations, but better than no bloom at all.

Chinese Witch Hazel

Chinese Witch Hazel

The individual flowers are just thready wisps of yellow; you have to see hundreds of them at once to get the full effect, and they don’t photograph well when there are relatively few, so you’ll just have to use your imagination. There is a nice fragrance too, when there are enough flowers.

The winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is also blooming well. It’s a semi-evergreen shrub that shoots out new branches all summer long. They quite often die inexplicably, so a good deal of pruning is needed to keep the plant looking tidy. The flowers are by no means showy, but the fragrance, especially in the evening, is something special — a lemony sweetness.

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter Honeysuckle Shrub

Winter Honeysuckle Shrub

Another January-blooming plant that sends out an alluring fragrance at night is really a weed — the spurge laurel, Daphne laureola. It’s a tough, drought-tolerant shrub that self-seeds generously, so has become an invasive pest in woodlands here. I have a few of them around the edges of the garden, and as long as I pull up the dozens of seedlings they produce, I can enjoy the haunting perfume on damp winter evenings.

Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola)

Spurge laurel (Daphne laureola)

Then there’s the Algerian iris (I. unguicularis). The foliage is messy, but the flowers are improbably gorgeous in January.

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis)

Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis)

The Corsican hellebores are among the winter-blooming stalwarts in this garden, totally reliable, as are snowdrops.

Corsican hellebore

Corsican hellebore

Hellebore and Snowdrops

Hellebore and Snowdrops

My scraggly rosemary plant, which has put up with shade for twenty years of summers, blooms defiantly in January. I guess the absence of leaves on the maples in autumn enables it to set buds. The flowers are little pale blue things that would go unnoticed in summer.

Rosemary in bloom

Rosemary in bloom

And finally, another weedy plant with fragrant flowers — the modest violet. The perfume sneaks up and delivers a pleasant surprise when I’m standing around contemplating the garden on a January day.

Sweet Violets

Sweet Violets

 

 

 

 

Witch hazel, Winter honeysuckle, Spurge laurel, Hellebore, Snowdrops, Rosemary, Violets, Yellow crocuses, Iris unguicularis.