Flowers in winter hold a special allure. Would we, I wonder, make such a fuss of the ubiquitous Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn if it flowered in mid-summer, competing for our attention among roses and a riot of bright perennials? Writing now, hard up against the shortest day, a great fountain of this viburnum rises over beds of emerging hellebores, sweetening the air for yards around with a honeyed, almond scent. I estimate this particular plant to be about 50 years old, with a fretwork of branches reaching 10ft from the ground that suggests stooling, or very hard pruning, at various times in its life.
Small bosses of rich pink flowers crowd the stems, miraculously surviving several degrees of frost. It can come into flower, sporadically, as early as October, saving its main flush for Christmas and New Year, in a mild season. A really severe frost browns the flowers, but when the weather bucks up again, it shoots forth a multitude of new blossom, extending into March or early April. I bring armfuls of Dawn into the house at this time of the year, its angular woody stems making their own simple decoration. In a warm room, the scent intensifies; it is curiously reminiscent of both the boudoir and the kitchen.
However, the time has come to plan major surgery: the shrub has vastly outgrown its allotted space, flattening out at the top and casting more shade than is good for the ground-dwellers below. So in April, I intend to cut it to within 18in or so of the ground. Its well-established root system should ensure a quick spurt of new growth and plentiful flowers again by this time next year.
Although V. x bodnantense Dawn has been a stalwart of garden centres for many years, in the past couple, question marks hung over whether to risk buying new plants of it, as large quantities of imported stock were found to be infected by the dreaded ‘sudden oak death’ (Phytophthora ramorum) disease and had to be destroyed. Though Defra says its programme of eradication of infected plants and its ‘plant passports’ scheme have reduced incidence of this disease, the best advice is to buy plants only from reputable nurseries and check they are completely healthy before you buy.
The Algerian irises (Iris unguicularis) began flowering at the end of November, and for once, we remembered?in late summer to tackle the thicket of foliage that builds up over the years. I am never sure how far to cut into this tight mound of old and new leaves, assuming the flower buds to lurk none too deep. It was scissored back to about 8in, and the reward is great: stem after stem of delicate-looking pale mauve flowers stand proud of its tussock, although I miss foraging around in the long (uncut) leaves for sight of this winter treasure’s first appearance.
A year ago, I asked readers of Hortus, my gardening quarterly, to submit lists of plants in flower on New Year’s Day. It had been mild up to the turn of the year, so lists in excess of 40 were not uncommon. The ‘winner’, gardening in Tintern, Monmouthshire, listed such anomalies as Cerinthe major and penstemon; also forsythia, some two months ahead of expectation. Of course, individual microclimates encourage odd readings like these, and individual plants certainly have the ability to surprise us. A current source of joy in my own garden is a very early crop of mid-blue flowers on a ceanothus, that dubiously hardy resident of the California chaparral.
The main constituents of the New Year’s Day Flower Count, however, threw a spot-light on the pleasing variety of plants many scented that flower bountifully and quite naturally in Britain in January and February. Many of them are small (such as the sarcococcas) and undemanding in terms of space. Shrubby honeysuckles (especially Lonicera fragrantissima, L. standishii and L. x purpusii) featured largely on the lists and these somewhat ragged looking bushes should never be overlooked when planning a small corner of the garden for special winter delight.
Like the above mentioned viburnum, they respond well to pruning and, although they are potentially quite large shrubs, they need not be left to sprawl invasively across your borders, swamping or ousting lesser companions.
This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on January 4, 2006