‘Gardener, if you listen, listen well:
Plant for your winter pleasure, when the months
Dishearten; plant to find a fragile note
Touched from the brittle violin of frost.’
From ‘The Garden’. Vita Sackville-West
I love the outline of trees against a violet winter sky. I love the texture and shape of evergreens without the distraction of flowers. I planted a large part of my garden to enjoy in winter, with coloured bark and interesting foliage. But the icing on the cake of course, are the delicate looking flowers which brave the worst of the winter weather. None of them are flamboyant; most are shy and retiring and you have to seek them out. Many of them are fragrant because they rely on scent to entice any bees brave enough to be out and about.
Each month when I write about my ten favourite blooms I try to stick with plants that are blooming in their proper season. December is the most challenging month for finding ten beautiful blooms to recommend, because many of my favourites don’t really get going until later in January and February.
I’ll start with my favourite flowering shrub. It is the Winter Sweet, Chimonanthus praecox and it comes from China. It grows to about seven feet tall. I love the flowers which look like pale lemon claws. They open from little round buttons. Graham Stuart Thomas said they are dirty cream. Actually the colour is variable; some are primrose yellow and I have seen one in Cambridge Botanical Gardens which is white. They have inner petals which are maroon.
The scent of these flowers is fabulous; it is spicily sweet and a small sprig fills the room with a wonderful fragrance. The drawback is that it needs a warm, sunny position, preferably in front of a south-facing wall to flower well. This wouldn’t matter if it didn’t look so coarse and unattractive in summer. I get round the problem by growing a viticella clematis up it. I have never succeeded in striking cuttings but it has little lantern- like seed cases full of seeds. They germinate readily but do not start to bloom until they are about seven years old. I grew mine from seed about twenty years ago. It moved around with me during a turbulent time in my life and clearly resented being dug up four times in three years; it showed its resentment by not flowering for a few years. This year it is full of bloom and looking happy again, I think it has decided that it has come home.
The Christmas rose, Helleborus niger lives up to its name most years and blooms on Christmas Day. I used to have one with huge flowers called ‘Potter’s Wheel’, but I haven’t come across it for some years. This plant grows in woodland in its natural habitat so it likes partial shade and lots of leaf mould. Unfortunately, slugs enjoy munching on the flowers.
I love Helleborus orientalis and once they get going later in the winter they bloom for months. I decided to have some that I could enjoy in the greenhouse this year, whatever the weather. I chose the lovely hybrid Helleborus ‘Anna’s Red’. This was bred by Rodney Davey and named after Anna Pavord. It has stunning pinky red flowers and marbled leaves.
The other hellebore I have in the greenhouse is Helleborus ‘Silver Lace’. When I bought it, I thought it was Helleborus lividus which comes from Majorca and is not reliably hardy. Actually it is the Corsican Helleborus argutifolius so it is quite hardy and can be planted in the garden. I love the silvery, spiny foliage.
Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ blooms in the spring with pink flowers but I prefer it when it has the dark red buds in winter. It is perfectly hardy in the garden but I have one in a pot in the greenhouse for a bit of colour.
Of course snowdrops feature strongly in my top ten December list of favourites. This is the reliable Galanthus ‘Farringdon Double’.
Galanthus ‘Remember,Remember’ bloomed for Armistice Day and was still looking good well into December.
Also in bloom are several Galanthus elwesii and Galanthus ‘Three Ships’ which reliably blooms for Christmas’.
I suppose I should include viburnums as they obligingly bloom throughout the winter months . I can’t say I love them though. These flowers go a bit brown in the frost and ice but carry on happily when the frost lets up.
One winter flowering viburnum that is definitely not one of my favourite December blooms is Viburnum tinus. I have it everywhere even though I have dug up several and I do dislike it. The leaves are often covered in white fly and as I have said before it smells awful when it is wet. Someone near here has planted it all the way up his long drive and I should hate to walk there when it has been raining. But having been so rude about it I have to admit that if you remove all the leaves it is quite useful for a vase.
The lovely winter flowering Iris unguicularis seems quite unconcerned by bad weather, the flowers look too delicate for the middle of winter. If you pick it in bud it will open in water. I love the sky blue one but I also love this pale lavender one.
I suppose I should mention winter jasmine as it obligingly blooms all winter. Wherever the stems meet the earth it roots, so you never need be without it. It’s not a plant which makes the heart beat faster, but it is useful.
Another climber is a clematis which sounds more like a liver disease rather than a plant. It is Clematis cirrhosa ‘jingle Bells’. I forgot to take a photo of it so I have just been down the garden in the dark to pick a few flowers.
I used Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ in my Christmas vase. I love these delicate winter flowering clematis. They look so fragile but they are quite hardy.
I have already cheated a bit by showing plants in the greenhouse rather than the garden and now I am going to take you indoors to see my lovely slipper orchid which is blooming for the third year. I have lots of Phalaenopsis or Moth orchids which bloom for weeks on end on the kitchen window sills. But this is a bit more special. It looks as if it is made of wax.
I will finish with my favourite December flower. It is the diminutive daffodil, Narcissus minor ‘Cedric Morris’. Most years it manages to be in bloom for Christmas Day. It is rare and wonderful and very elusive. Just as you think you have a lovely big clump it will fail to appear one year. I think it is very vulnerable to attacks from Narcissus Fly, I don’t know why it should suffer more than other daffodils but over the years I have lost quite a few. It is always a relief when it appears. For a little more about the history of this daffodil click here.
So there are my top ten blooms for December. Next month there will be some more exciting blooms as more fragrant shrubs come into flower. If you have any treasures to share, I would love to see them. If you can’t find ten, just one beautiful bloom is a treat in December .