Some people buy all their Christmas cards 11 months early, drawing on a potent combination of optimism and thrift. I have done it myself from time to time, but rather more alluring right now are the bargains at our local nursery, which always slashes its prices with the New Year.
The discounts make their hellebores almost affordable, but the thing that really caught my eye was a crowd of pots planted with the winterberry holly, Ilex verticillata. I have seen it for a number of years sold as expensive cut stems in florists at Christmastime, but never for sale in the UK as an actual plant until now. Its appeal lies in the eye-catching cluster of berries crowding each twig near the tops of its long, straight branches; once cut, they last for weeks, so long as you don’t stand them in water.
Ilex verticillata is a native of North America, widely spread over the continent, but favouring low-lying, swampy areas or moist woodland, although it is not averse to higher and more open land, too. Like most other hollies, its flowers are tiny and inconspicuous, but it makes up for any lack of flower power with a blaze of brilliant berries from autumn well into winter. They are all the more prominent because most unusually for a holly it sheds its leaves, creating the sculptural, minimalist look beloved of fashionable florists.
Although it relishes damp ground, winterberry will grow on a wide range of soils, but there are one or two catches to bear in mind before you buy a plant expecting to harvest armfuls of its branches for stylish arrangements next Christmas. Like nearly all hollies, it bears its male and female flowers on separate plants. Therefore, you need to buy a male, pollen bearing clone to grow near one or more females, in order to get any berries to develop at all in subsequent years. It is also rather slow growing eventually reaching 6ft to 12ft.
So, to have enough stems to cut some each winter, order a harem of females to range around the male, and leave them alone for at least the first two years. Neither type is particularly easy to find at present, but PMA Plant Specialities of Taunton, Somerset (01823 480774; www.junker.co.uk) keeps good stocks of the male-flowered Southern Gentleman, and female Maryland Beauty and Winter Red.
By now, we are becoming used to the seasons being muddled: williamsii and japonica type camellias have been in flower for weeks, and they are joined by hebes, ceanothus, pelargoniums, abelias, Iceberg roses and much else, in very unexpected combinations of bloom. But still, the things which are most pleasing are the expected flowers snowdrops, emerging crocuses, reticulata irises and early daffodils. My current favourite is Narcissus papyraceus, the outstanding paperwhite narcissus, so redolent of the field margins and streamsides of Andalucía in late winter.
Ours are all grown in the usual way, forced in pots in the greenhouse for dependable Christmas and New Year blooms. They flower magnificently, punching out that sweet, powdery scent reminiscent of violets and marzipan, but the payoff for winter forcing is that the stems and leaves grow lanky in the poor light levels of a typical British winter.
Fortunately, William B. Miller, professor of horticulture at Cornell University, has come up with an extremely agreeable solution. When you pour out your tipple of, say, gin and tonic, give some to the daffodils as well. Beer and wine are unsuitable, but, says Prof Miller: ‘Root zone ethanol concentrations of 1% to 5% were effective in reducing height without visible phytotoxicity to the roots.’
Various ethanol sources, including gin, vodka, whisky, schnapps, rum, and tequila were equally effective in reducing growth in paperwhites when supplied at 4% but, he notes, ‘peppermint schnapps caused somewhat more growth inhibition, providing a safe, effective, and organic method for amateurs to control the height of this popular flowering bulb’. Cheers!