Winter-Flowering Shrubs

It really doesn’t take too much visual joy to dispel the dark days, omnipresent rain and lack of colour in our gardens from December to February, just a bloom or two; which is why winter-flowering shrubs or even those with brightly coloured branches or berries play such a vital role in our horticultural well-being. Of course it’s much more subtle than in spring when the forsythia assaults our senses and the rhododendrons and azaleas flaunt their floriferous displays at almost every turn of the head. Winter flowers are entirely subject to the whims of nature, bursting forth on those warmer days and only showing a hint of their glory when the temperature drops. It is this refinement that makes them so special and while they are never available in great numbers, winter-flowering shrubs are an essential component of any well-designed landscape.

Witch Hazel

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'

Witch Hazels are large deciduous shrubs (averaging 12-15’ tall) with an arching growth habit. With the exception of Hamamelis virginiana they bloom from January through to March, many with fragrant blossoms borne on bare stems. The two most common species available are Hamamelis mollis (clear yellow) and H. x intermedia, which is a cross of H. mollis and H. japonica. The latter hybrid group brings us the most common cultivars, those being ‘Arnold Promise’ (bright yellow), ‘Jelena’ (orange) and ‘Diane’ (red). Another less common species is Hamamelis vernalis or the Ozark Witch Hazel, which has shorter petals but does provide a pendulous form (‘Lombart’s Weeping’), hybrids such as ‘Rochester’ and a cultivar with near purple blooms, ‘Amethyst’. These require full sun to part shade to flower best and look great when underplanted with short broadleaf evergreens, such as dwarf Christmas Box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis).

Hamamelis vernalis 'Amethyst', Hamamelis x 'Rochester', Hamamelis mollis 'Wisley Supreme',

Winter Camellias

Camellia sasanqua 'Apple Blossom'

Winter Camellias are the stars of the off-season landscape, mostly because when we see them in a sheltered garden centre setting they are covered with blossoms. Once planted, the reality is that they tend to bloom in dribs and drabs depending on the weather, although they are still among the showiest of the winter-flowering shrubs. With the exception of ‘Yuletide’, Camellia sasanqua tends to be more lax in its growth habit, lending itself for training on a trellis or fence, espalier style. They are hardy to zone 7 and come in a myriad of colours and flower forms including ‘White Doves’ (dbl. white), ‘Chansonette’ (dbl. dark pink) ‘Apple Blossom’ (single white with pink edge), ‘Kanjiro’ (semi-dbl. fuchsia-pink) and the very popular ‘Yuletide’ (single red with contrasting yellow stamens).

Camellia sasanqua 'Chansonette', Camellia sasanqua 'Kanjiro', Camellia sasanqua 'White Doves', Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide'

Hollies & False-Holly

Ilex x meserveae 'Blue Princess'

Although these evergreen shrubs don’t bloom in winter, they are still an important foliage component of the dormant landscape. We should start by mentioning that the English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) traditionally used for decorating at Christmas is on the invasive plant list in British Columbia, which is why you aren’t seeing them anymore at garden centres. The exceptions are variegated male forms such as ‘Ferox Argentea’ or Hedgehog Holly which do not produce berries. Another option within this genus is to plant hybrid hollies such as Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Princess’ (which requires a male pollinator) or Ilex x aquipernyi ‘San Jose’, both of which have sterile berries.

Ilex aquifolium 'Ferox Argentea', Ilex x aquipernyi 'San Jose', Ilex verticillata 'Little Goblin Red', Ilex verticillata 'Golden Verboom',

The False-Hollies or Osmanthus heterophyllus provide less prickly but smaller holly-like foliage with ‘Goshiki’ (marbled green and gold with pinkish new growth), ‘Variegatus’ (creamy-white variegation) and ‘Aureomarginatus’ (gold-edged) all readily available.

Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Aureomarginatus', Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki',

Shrubby Dogwoods

Again I’m a bit off topic here but shrubby dogwood stems are some of the best architectural features to be found in the winter garden, much in part to their brilliant colours. Your standard Cornus sericea or Cornus alba provide dark red branches all winter long, but the colour is more pronounced on the newer growth. Yellow stems can be found on cultivars of both these species, including Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’ and Cornus alba ‘Bud’s Yellow’. For a truly spectacular effect try interplanting both red and yellow-twig dogwoods for eye-catching contrast. Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’ provides unique burgundy-black stalks while Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ lives up to its name with multicoloured stems that are yellow at the base, orange half way up and fire engine red on the tips.

Cornus alba 'Bud's Yellow', Cornus alba 'Elegantissima', Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire',

Winter Heather