This wonderful garden which was opened in 1846 was the brainchild of Darwin’s friend and mentor, the great botanist: Professor John Stevens Henslow. It is a wonderful place to visit all year round but a special treat in winter.
We set off yesterday leaving our home in Suffolk enshrouded in mist. The weather forecast didn’t let us down though and when we arrived in Cambridge it was to be met by sunshine and clear blue skies. I first discovered the winter garden here about 20 years ago and I was bowled over by it. Since then other winter gardens have opened and we are lucky to have the wonderful Anglesey Abbey winter garden in East Anglia. This one was years ahead of all the others though. I have always been an avid collector of plants which look good in winter and here they all were corralled in one south- facing, gloriously fragrant garden. It is surrounded by hedges and has been dug out so that it is slightly contoured and the main path snakes through the lower part. There is also a narrower path which takes you through the top part of the garden.
Of course the most important factor in a winter garden is fragrance. Here as you approach the winter garden you walk along a path fragrant with hedges of Sarcococca. Some young women were walking along with their toddlers and asked me what the fabulous smell was. I showed them the plant and told them that it is called ‘Sarcococca’. ‘But what is its real name?’ one of them asked. I assured her that the real name is ‘Sarcococca’. ‘Yes, but what is its proper name?’ She said. ‘Sarcococca ruscifolia’ I replied. They went off tutting in irritation. I don’t believe it’s pedantic to insist on the proper Latin names for plants. If you are going to learn a name you might as well learn the correct one. I believe the vernacular name is ‘Sweet Box’ but I didn’t tell them that. Sarcococca is not a Buxus. Anyway if you love plants you should dignify them with their proper names.
As you enter the winter garden you are met by the very best of all winter scents. Daphne bhloua ‘Jacqueline Postill’.
There are several lovely specimens of Chimonanthus praecox in the garden. What really intrigued me is how they vary in colour. Flora Weather left a comment on my post about a Chimonanthus she has ordered and she thought it looked white in the picture. I thought it must be the photograph which made it look white because I was convinced they were all yellow. I was amazed to find the first Chimomanthus I came to growing in a shady spot and looking so pale it was almost white. It smelt divine and was covered in flowers. I always thought it needed sun to flower well. I didn’t much care for the colour though it looked wishy-washy. Other bushes had the yellow flowers which I believed they all had. I have to say though that after examining them all I realize that my Chimonanthus, the one I wrote about in a recent post, is Chimonanthus praecox ‘Grandiflorus’. I am sorry if I misled anyone; I grew it from seed 16 years ago and the friend who gave me the seed told me that it was Chimonanthus praecox. The flowers of mine are larger and a deeper yellow so it is not surprising that Annette who loves winter-flowering plants too, left a comment asking me if it was Chimonanthus luteus.
Fragrance is carried on through the garden with large shrubs of Viburnum bodantense and Lonicera x purpusii. A seat is placed by the Mahonia japonica so you can sit and drink in the perfume if you are hardy enough on a January day.
I thought there would be more witch hazels but I loved a dainty, yellow one at the far end of the garden. I don’t know which it is; someone had stolen the label. Who are these people who steal labels? They shouldn’t be let out without their keepers.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ was looking superb. I think it is one of the best of the witch hazels. This is a large shrub, absolutely full of flowers and set off beautifully by Berberis wilsoniae on one side, a lovely bronzey grass at its feet and the ghost bramble Rubus biflorus making chalk white patterns on the other side. Berberis wilsoniae is lovely for autumn and winter; it is small and makes little mounds of pretty leaves which take on lovely autumn tints. It has little coral coloured berries.
Rubus biflorus is not as invasive as the white Rubus cockburnianus and it has a more interesting way of growing sideways into a glorious white tangle. It has edible berries too. I hesitate to recommend any of these blackberry relatives though. I grew this one and it did look great in winter but it had a horrible habit of coming up everywhere. I love the way it makes a wiry roof for snowdrops and aconites.
I had never come across the lovely dark shiny stems of Rubus niveus before. I looked it up and apparently it has become a terrible nuisance in places like the Galapogos Islands where it has been introduced. I won’t be seeking this one out.
Coloured stems and bark are essential in the winter garden. I loved the way Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ was grown with apple green Helleborus foetidus and Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ .
Salix alba ‘Chermesina has bright orange stems each year coming up from pollarded trunks.
The contorted hazel ; Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ which E.A. Bowles grew in the area of his garden known as ‘the lunatic asylum’ looks great in winter. I don’t like it so much in summer though when it looks diseased.
The trees with wonderful bark are: Prunus serrula which looks as if someone has polished it.
Acer griseum is gorgeous with cinnamon coloured bark hanging in tatters.
There is a wonderful, mature birch tree Betula utilis var. jacquemontii. It is set off by pure white snowdrops.
The birch tree which I always associate with this garden is Betula albosinensis var. septrionalis. The bark is an amazing mixture of colours; copper, cream, buff, pink, maybe a bit orangey. It is really eye catching.
Interesting foliage is not neglected. Colletia paradoxa is very unusual and it has little fragrant flowers in the autumn. It has vicious, hooked thorns, so one has to keep a respectful distance.
The silk –tassel bush; Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ has long, slivery green catkins and leathery green leaves. I thought it was frost proof but mine got badly burnt last year and I had to cut it right down. This looks as if it came through last winter unscathed.
I like the idea of weaving interesting ivies through snowdrops, aconites and the black grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’.
I must finish with some snowdrops. This is a new one to me Galanthus x valentinei ssp. valentinei. It sounds like a tautology to me but botanists know best. I believe Galanthus x valentinei is the name given to a cross between Galanthus nivalis and Galanthus plicatus .