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.
Winter 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.
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 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.”*
My 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) 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-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.