Lifestyle

A guide to winter-flowering shrubs

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A wealth of flowering shrubs has been blooming in many gardens since late November, especially with our mild weather so far, but 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.

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.

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.

The deciduous winter-flowering Viburnum Pink Dawn is still one of my 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 now full of white blossoms that look exceptional when contrasted with its bronze buds and steel blue berries.

I have a 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.

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 now.

Winter heathers, or more correctly Erica carneas, are important to all our gardens. 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.

As the last leg of winter turns the corner, a whole host of winter-blooming shrubs celebrate its passing.  Chimonanthus, or Wintersweet, will be in bloom soon, 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 reddish purple autumn foliage either.

February daphne (Daphne mezereum) blooms faithfully 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. 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.

Brian Minter is a master gardener who operates Minter Gardens in Chilliwack.

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