I don’t seem to have had much time to get out into gardens to enjoy the delights of the early winter garden. On the occasional foray into The Winter Garden at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire, England I have noticed even more early winter jewels than usual. The spectacular display of fruits and berries that we have enjoyed this autumn continues into winter, and the mild weather has coaxed a few of the true winter blooming shrubs into early flower. I even noticed the sweet fragrance of Daphne bholua from one or two tiny brave flowers last weekend.
The curious shining purple berries of callicarpa are a highlight of early winter. This shrub is really rather ordinary for much of the year with boring, narrow oval leaves. These often colour delightfully in autumn in shades of gold and purple before they fall to reveal straight twigs carrying cluster of perfectly spherical purple berries. These are metallic and artificial in appearance, curiously contemporary, but stunningly eye catching. Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’ is the variety normally grown and in a good year like this one it is a show stealer. A fairly large shrub it needs space, particularly as it fruits best when planted in groups of three for pollination. It also needs sun for the fruits to develop. I was always sceptical about this recommendation; however I have one planted in shade which flowers (inconspicuously) and never produces a single berry.
Iris foetidissima, sometimes called the roast beef plant because the crushed foliage smells of raw meat, is often mentioned as a plant for winter interest. The rather dull greenish flowers of summer develop into heavy seed capsules which split to reveal shining, bright orange seeds. The colour with the dark green leaves is striking if you don’t get too close. Although the seeds are jewel-like and exquisite the foliage is tatty, virus-ridden and unattractive; sad because potentially it is a good garden plant for shade.
The birds have made short work of the berries of sorbus and cotoneaster, now that we have had a few cold days to increase their hunger and need for sugary sustenance. However those that remain appear more precious without the leaves to hide them. I was captivated by one cotoneaster with arching stems and scarlet fruits shining against the coppery bark of a birch in the low winter sun. What a difference the positioning of a plant can make. I think this one is Cotoneaster conspicuus; an appropriate name.
As unusual as the purple berries of callicarpa are there are few more surprising sights in the garden than the blue black metallic berries of some viburnums. Some varieties of Viburnum tinus produce them and these are now grown commercially for floral decoration. The most reliable in the garden situation is the female form of Vibunum davidii. When not in fruit there is no way to identify the female form so if you want to be sure buy one when it is in berry. It is a great subject for a pot or for a shady spot under a tree. The fruits may not be colourful in the traditional sense, but they are exquisite.
The winter cherry, Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, is producing a few delicate flowers on its bare twigs. This is such a dainty little tree and perfect for the small garden, in fact I always recommended it as the number one choice for this purpose. Sadly it now suffers from blossom wilt, a fungal disease that is difficult to control. The tree can be in full bloom, then suddenly the blossom withers and dies. The same happens to the leaves, often on just a few branches, or over the whole tree. The tree often recovers and then the same happens again. This problem has led to the demise of this winter garden beauty as a good garden tree; sad.
Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is flowering well this year and despite the mild weather seems to have shed the last of its leaves which often hang on with the flowers. The fragrance is fresh and sweet when the flowers are as freely produced as they seem to be this season. This viburnum is a big shrub that is best at the back of a border, ideally against a dark background. If you need to control its size or keep it in check prune straight after flowering cutting back some of the older stems to the base of the plant. I find it is at its best under the high canopy of deciduous trees or sheltered by neighbouring buildings. This protects the flower clusters from frost which can leave them brown and damaged; they recover but look sad in the meantime.
Another early winter bloomer of a more exotic nature is the exquisite Camellia sasanqua. This is not the hardiest subject and thrives under the protection of larger neighbouring trees and shrubs. It is also good in a pot for the front porch or protected against the walls of the house. Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ is a pretty single soft red variety with golden stamens; a great decoration for the holidays.
I’ve been using cut skimmia buds in wreaths and table decorations for the festive period; mostly the red-budded Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’. However this is not the variety I would grow in my garden and not the one I see much in other winter gardens. The best by far as a garden plant is Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’ with its emerald leaves and pale green buds which open to creamy fragrant spring flowers. It may sound rather dull but believe me it is a real winter jewel for semi-shade with carex or vinca as ground cover. It is lovely for cutting too.
Of course for me the winter garden isn’t a winter wonderland without the beauty of the bark of trees. The peeling bark of Betula albosinesis ‘Bowling Green’ is a true winter jewel; shining amber that changes with the light and the movement of the breeze. A magnificent specimen rising out of a bed of jet ophiopogon is an amazing sight. As ever I am convinced that the winter garden carries even more treasures waiting to be discovered than the garden does at any other time of the year. Happy Holidays!