Prolonged frost is very drying and after several days, with the temperature below zero, evergreens and anything with green growth is wilting.
Many early bloomers are looking very sad, as if struggling with severe drought. In these conditions plants continue to lose water, but they cannot absorb through the roots, hence their wilted appearance. However when temperatures rise recovery is usually rapid and even the most wilted subjects bounce back.
Some winter flowering shrubs are more resistant to extreme cold. The flowers simply defy the frost and stand firm on the branches despite their fragile appearance. The witch hazels are some of the hardiest. The delicate flowers with narrow ribbon-like petals are at their best in late winter and prolonged frost does not deter the display. Their spicy perfume may not be at its strongest, but the blooms still sparkle.Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’, with pale sulphur yellow flowers shows up in the garden regardless of the weather. It has an attractive, spreading habit and should be given space to avoid the need to prune. Neutral to acid soil is necessary and reasonable soil moisture.
The winter-flowering heathers start to bloom from late winter through early spring. These are often overlooked in today’s gardens and deserve wider planting. The flowering season is long and they are a valuable source of early nectar and pollen for bumblebees and other pollinators. Erica carnea ‘Winter Snow’ is just one of many cultivars of Erica carnea and Erica x darleysensis; the latter tends to be taller.The flowers are entirely frost resistant. When they fade, clip over the plants with shears to remove the faded flower spikes and encourage branched growth. This maintains winter heathers as low, compact mounds.
For fragrance few shrubs surpass the daphnes, especially Daphne bholua. This is a tall, open shrub with tan coloured stems and narrow green leaves. The flower clusters at the tips of the shoots begin to open from early winter. Lilac pink in colour they are sweetly fragrant; a perfume that lingers in the garden even on the coldest days. Despite their delicate appearance they are very frost resistant and normally unscathed. Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is the most widely grown; free flowering and reliable. Daphne odora is smaller in stature forming a rounded shrub up to 90cm (3ft) in height and spread.Its flower clusters may be less spectacular but the scent is powerful. Unlike other daphnes, Daphne odora roots relatively easily from semi-ripe cuttings taken in the summer.
The camellias are some of the most exotic and flamboyant early blooming hardy shrubs.The blooms are damaged by hard frost if exposed to early sun, so East facing aspects should be avoided. The blooms are produced in succession, so flowers spoiled by frost are soon replaced. Generally single-flowered camellias with smaller blooms are more frost resistant. Camellia x williamsii ‘St Ewe’ is a good example.Also this variety quickly sheds damaged and faded flowers maintaining the attractive appearance of the plant.
We always think of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis as the earliest of the bulbs. In England February is most definitely the snowdrop month.Different species and cultivars vary in their flowering times, but all are remarkably resilient to freezing conditions.In extreme weather some will bend their stems and lower their flowers to the ground, however they soon recover. Planting under the shelter of a hedge or large deciduous shrubs offers protection from icy winds and they usually survive the weather unscathed.
The winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis often blooms at the same time, or even before the snowdrops. Growing close to the ground it is sheltered and the shining yellow blooms resist even hard frost. It is perfect to establish close to the base of deciduous trees and will naturalise in short grass. It spreads more by seeding rather than multiplication so avoid areas of cultivation if attempting to naturalise it.
The early crocus appear at the same time. Usually emerging on the first warm day Crocus tommasinianus is the first. Its shining buds push through the ground and stand fast even after subsequent frosts. The buds open in winter sunshine to welcome early insects. These specie crocus are far more weather resistant and longer lasting than the large flowered crocus that come later. They also fade gracefully and multiply well.
Cyclamen coum produces its tiny bright blooms from mid-winter onwards. This species has rounded leaves and neat blooms from white to cerise pink in colour.Left undisturbed it seeds and spreads and lights up the ground through the coldest days of winter.Like the autumn blooming Cyclamen hederifolium it is best established from pot grown plants rather than dry tubers.
The blooms of Helleborus x hybridus collapse in heaps in freezing weather conditions. However they quickly recover and flower stems that bent over and touched the ground when frozen are usually standing upright when things thaw. The nodding blooms naturally hang down and perhaps this helps to protect them.Hellebores hybridise naturally and seed freely. Often the best seedlings seem to appear in the most awkward places but if they can be left alone they are happier than being moved.
Despite the wilted appearance of plants in freezing conditions it is a mistake to water until things have thawed completely. Then watering may be important, especially on well-drained soils.
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