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 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 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
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',
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',
While we generally only have the choice of two species here, Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis, there are literally hundreds of cultivars to choose from. The flower colour ranges from deep rose to shell pink and white, with both green and gold-needled varieties also available. These species have a nice rounded growth habit and are some of the easiest heathers to grow, but Erica carnea tends to be more compact at 6-8” tall on average. The carnea cultivars are also slightly hardier at USDA zone 5, while E. x darleyensis averages USDA zone 6. ‘Springwood Pink’ and ‘Springwood White’ are your most common Erica carnea cultivars with ‘December Red’, ‘Winterfreude’, ‘Myretoun Ruby’ and ‘Race Rocks’ all worth looking for. Cultivars of Erica x darleyensis have a bloom period that lasts from late November through to April with ‘Kramer’s Red’ being my absolute best seller. Other tried and true cultivars include ‘Ghost Hills’ (pink), ‘Eva Gold’ (magenta), ‘White Perfection’, ‘Jenny Porter’ (pale lilac) and ‘Mary Helen’ (pink with gold foliage). Recent breeding has brought us larger-flowered winter heathers which are worth seeking out, with ‘Alice’, ‘Katia’, ‘Lena’ and ‘Lucie’ all available locally.
Erica x darleyensis 'Eva Gold', Erica x darleyensis 'Jenny Porter', Erica x darleyensis 'Katia',
Berries & Vines
There are two berried shrubs worth having for winter appeal, with my favourite being Callicarpa ‘Profusion’. The clusters of vibrant purple berries almost look artificial but once the leaves drop on this deciduous shrub they are the star of the show and often persist until late January. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is another show-stopper as this deciduous holly bears bright red berries on bare branches that not only make great floral cuts for Christmas decorating, but are a favourite winter food for Varied Thrushes. Ilex verticillata comes with both yellow (‘Golden Verboom’) and red-berried (‘Little Goblin Red’) forms. Although not fragrant, Winter Jasmine’s (Jasminum nudiflorum) bright yellow blooms on bare green stems are a cheerful sight on any dull winter day. Last but not least are two tender Clematis that bloom in late winter; both Clematis x cartmanii ‘Joe’ and C. cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ require a sunny, sheltered site but will reward you with pure white blooms on fern-like foliage or spotted purple and white flowers starting in January.
Callicarpa 'Profusion', Clematis x cartmanii 'Joe', Clematis cirrhosa 'Freckles',
Back to the Blooms
Few shrubs flower as long as Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ which bears fragrant pale pink bloom clusters from November through to April; although it will often look barren in the coldest weather. Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ or ‘Charity’ both flower in early winter with long yellow inflorescences borne terminally. These bold broadleaf evergreens have holly-like foliage and grow quite large (8-10’ at maturity) but are in short supply right now due to problems with it being an alternate host to wheat rust. For those of you looking for an exotic look even in winter, try Edgeworthia chrysantha with its fragrant spherical white and yellow blooms borne from February to April. ‘Akebono’ is another worthy cultivar with orange and white flowers, although both will require a sheltered site due to their zone 7 hardiness. Grevillea victoriae is a hardy (USDA zone 7) Bottlebrush shrub native to Australia that has been doing quite well here; the clustered reddish-orange blooms somewhat resemble honeysuckle and are borne from late winter, although sparingly at first. Winter Forsythia or Abeliophyllum distichum lives up to its name with a rather unruly growth habit paired with a floriferous display of white (often tinged pink) blooms with a spicy fragrance on warmer days. While we’re on the topic of fragrance, few shrubs emanate such intoxicating scent as the Winter Daphne (Daphne mezereum) which bursts out in bright pink blossoms starting in February. Lastly I’d like to leave you with two of my favourites, Stachyurus praecox and Winter Hazel (Corylopsis spicata) both of which bear cheerful pale yellow racemes in late winter on bare branches.
Mahonia x media 'Charity', Stachyurus praecox, Viburnum x bodnantense 'Dawn',
Edgeworthia chrysantha 'Akebono', Corylopsis spicata, Daphne mezereum, Grevillea victoriae,
So as you can see, there are plenty of options to brighten your winter garden, just keep in mind that many of these shrubs are rather hard to find and are best purchased sight on seen.
All Images 2013-2019 are Copyright MK Lascelle