The Winter Garden -The Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

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.Image

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 .Image

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20 Responses to The Winter Garden -The Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

  1. Julie says:

    Brilliant post, I love the Cambridge Botanical gardens. Winter gardens, the colours and scents are so joyous and yes who are those people taking the labels! Its looks as if you had a wonderful visit.

  2. Pauline says:

    I really enjoyed wandering round with you, this is a garden that has been on my wish list for years, I do love visiting winter gardens with their beautiful colours and textures.

  3. bittster says:

    What a nice visit, there are more great ideas in this garden than I can keep track of. I really like all the underplantings. Even inside the Rubus thickets there isn’t a weed to be seen, yet snowdrops and winter aconites galore!
    …all the bark and stems and fragrance and winter blooms…. you really did a great job covering so many of the highlights, and I must say I much prefer your winter compared to ours here in the NE US 🙂

  4. Chloris says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. That’s just what I thought about the Rubus. It is so prickly and impenetrable I can’t imagine how they keep it weeded. It does look lovely.

  5. Cathy says:

    What a feast of delights you have shared with us, Chloris! That daphne we were all admiring a week or two ago – how absolutely stunning! As was the Chimonanthus too – both so very beautiful, and I can only imagine what it was like to experience all those fragrances. Lots of lovely bark and stem too. I think for those of us who like plants and gardens reeling off the Latin names is something we do without thinking, perhaps a bit like people who are film buffs or soap addicts knowing exactly who the stars are when they see them. Not that I would have known this particular sarcococca was ‘ruscifolia’ unless I had seen the label! Thanks for this lovely post.

  6. Chloris says:

    Thank you for your lovely comment Cathy. My point about names is that if you are going to the trouble of learning plant names you might just as well learn the correct names particularly as these names are international. OK, perhaps I am pedantic but a lot of common names are local names and mean nothing to people from other parts of the country, never mind the world. Where I come from we used to call Caltha palustris: ‘May blobs’. I wonder how many people would know what a May blob is.

  7. Well, here’s a garden to put on the list if I should ever find myself in the UK again. Love the contorted hazel and the silk-tassle bush. And you are a hard taskmaster, refusing to coddle those garden visitors with the common name!

  8. Chloris says:

    Well as I said to Kathy, I think if you are going to bother to learn a name it might as well be the proper one. Besides, Sweet Box is misleading because it is not a Box at all. Latin is an international horticultural language and without it we don’t know what we are all talking about.
    The garden is certainly worth a visit as are many of the College gardens.

  9. Anna says:

    Oh what a riot of colour Chloris. So glad that I read this as I’m off to see my mum in Peterborough soon and was thinking of nipping over to Cambridge to visit the Botanical Garden if the weather is reasonable. I know now what a treat lies in store for me. Are you sure that it’s humans making off with the labels? 🙂

  10. Chloris says:

    Do go and see it Anna, it is worth a visit. The cakes in the cafe are delicious too! Don’t forget to look in the glasshouses, there are all sorts of treasures there.

  11. Kris P says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful garden, Chloris! You’ve prodded me to think more about fragrance, which is lacking in my own garden at the moment.

  12. Chloris says:

    But you have lovely things like Grevillea. I love reading your Blog Kris but I can’t see how to follow it. Can you tell me how to do it?

  13. Flighty says:

    A most enjoyable post, and terrific pictures. I have been there once some years ago during May, but I don’t think that it looked as good then as it does here now.
    As I’ve previously mentioned my sense of smell is pretty poor so I go more for colour, shapes and textures which are all just as interesting now as at any other time of year.
    I agree about proper plant names, although I have to say that I’m not much good when it comes to remembering them, let alone quoting them. xx

  14. Chloris says:

    In a way I think colour shape and form are even more important in winter. The colours of the flowers are subtle and delicate but the tracery of the trees, the bark and the stems of shrubs are wonderful. If the garden hasn’ t got good basic structure and form it reallly shows up in winter.

  15. rusty duck says:

    What a great place to go. It’s about time I paid a visit to Rosemoor’s winter garden, I remember the fragrance being one of the stunning things about that too.
    It’s a good point about the white bramble being invasive. I have often thought about getting some and then decided against it. Our garden here was obviously intended to be a summer garden, so introducing some of the plants above is definitely on my to do list.

  16. Chloris says:

    I love Rosemoor, there is so much to see there. You are lucky living near to such an amazing garden.
    It really is worth introducing plants that give you pleasure in winter. I don’t suppose you get the frosts that we get so you can probably grow winter things that are impossible here.

  17. I love winter gardens and this one’s definitely on my list, especially after reading your blog. So many wonderful plants! Many were familiar to me but it’s a very pleasant surprise to find yet more plants that I hadn’t come across before. Only problem being my garden’s not big enough for them all! And I’m with you on the correct Latin terminology. How else can we correctly identify a plant?

  18. Robbie says:

    Thank you for the tour:-) The “Salix alba ‘Chermesina” is stunning color! Your color, shape, textures, + fragrance( I can only imagine) in your winter garden are beautiful:-) Our winter gardens are not quite as beautiful in the USA-zone 5. Our winters are rather harsh, for example, today the winds are blowing 40mph + below zero weather for days where nothing is able to go outside.

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