Winter flowers in garden design
Updated: Jun 19
Wintertime for a lot of garden designers is a time to take stock of the previous year, to review the garden’s that we’ve treated the world to, to research what new plants and materials may be coming our way that we can utilise in the coming working year and to get our tax returns in! In the garden too, as the sun mirrors the temperatures in dropping ever lower and the majority of plants go into their periods of stasis, the lack of direct light and warmth, alongside a sparsity of colour and fragrance, makes venturing outside seem even less attractive. Nevertheless, for garden designers’ clients, this time of year should not be one in which the garden is something to reminisce over but a space in which there should still be plenty to enjoy.
Any good garden designer should be providing interest for 12 months of the year in the gardens they design. Although this interest can come in a variety of hard-landscaping materials, structures, interesting tree barks, vibrant berries, evergreen, structural planting and even uncut ornamental grasses, what really brings people outside during the colder months of the year is colour and fragrance. And it’s not only people that are drawn to the bright colours and the heady scent of flowers at this time of year; our pollinators too are attracted to the plants that offer a rich bounty to any brave or hungry enough to get out into the chillier garden air. Although most nectar-feeding insects will hibernate through the winter months, coming out when their world warms up in early spring, honeybees, for example, will come out to forage in temperatures of 10 degrees Celsius or warmer and this winter in particular there have been many of those. So how does a garden designer provide not only floral interest in the winter months for their clients but also valuable food sources for our insect friends? Well, here are a number of plants that are invaluable for maintaining that interest (and food source) at this time of year and how one can get the best out of them for their clients’ (and natures) benefit.
One of the great winter stalwarts of any garden and one of my personal favourites is Sarcococca, and specifically, Sarcococca Hookeriana. These invaluable little shrubs not only have one of the most wonderfully sweet fragrances emitted from their tiny flowers but they pack an almighty punch, meaning that it takes only one small plant to fill the air with its heady perfume. Aside from the flowers the reason that these plants are so invaluable in the winter garden is that they are happy in the darkest corners of any plot, where most plants seldom prosper, let alone flower. What’s more, being evergreen, they are fabulous as a low border hedge, being easily maintained due to their slow growing habit and therefore a great replacement for Buxus, which, if you live in the South East especially, has seen its longevity stunted due to box tree caterpillar and blight.
Modern gardens as hedging (S. Confusa rather than S. Hookeriana)
Cottage gardens in small groups
Hamamelis x Intermedia
Another great favourite of mine and another stalwart of the winter garden is the beautifully flowered Hamamelis x Intermedia. We tend to see 2 of the 6 species of Hamamelis in our gardens, the Chinese witch-hazel, Hamamelis Mollis, and a cross between the Chinese and Japanese witch hazel’s, Hamamelis x Intermedia. The flowers offer some incredible colours in the ‘hot’ colour palette, from zingy, acid-yellows, through sultry scarlet’s, to bright, and also coppery, oranges. Not only do the flowers smell incredibly strong, more spicy or musky than sweet, but also they have a unique look, akin to tiny strands of tissue paper glued onto bare branches, although these strands are actually the petals of the flower. They have an incredible number of uses in both the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries and are well known for their healing properties. Their natural habitats are the edges of woodlands or meadows and so do well in full sun to partial shade, although they will flower more profusely in full sun and they do like a neutral to acidic soil. They do not like to dry out so are not ideal for containers in full sun unless they receive regular watering but are best placed by a door or entrance where they will provide a smile on a passing face on a regular basis. They are also useful for snipping off a few branches every couple of weeks and bringing inside the house to pop into a vase, enlivening any room with their potent perfume. Although not a striking-looking shrub or small tree when in leaf they do have a pleasant habit and if lightly pruned into an architectural shape can look fantastic when up-lit as a small specimen plant in a modern-style garden design. On top of all of that, in the autumn the leaves turn from green into the most unbelievably striking reds and yellows, sometimes with all three colours combining to make striking patterns on each individual leaf. Truly one of the best garden plants for autumn leaf-change colour there is.
Dark grey paving materials that highlight the colours of fallen leaves and flower colours
Modern gardens if used as specimen shrubs/small trees, especially as focal points
On the edge of woodland gardens
Known commonly as wintersweet, Chimonanthus Praecox is another beautiful but seldom seen winter flowerer hailing from China. These plants, much like Hamamelis varieties, do not look fantastic during the spring and summer months when they are in leaf and so are best planted near to a more striking looking shrub. However, once the mercury falls they come into their own with a stunning array of small, waxy flowers that give off a scent very unsuspecting for their diminutive size. Much like many winter flowerers they like a sunny spot and are best planted near a doorway or entrance. They do not come in an array of colours but the species, for me, has the most interesting flowers, with pale yellow outer petals surrounding claret-purple inner petals. C. Lutea is another pretty flowerer, with pale yellow petals throughout the flowers, blooming later in February and March but without as strong a scent. These shrubs will grow to around 4 metres x 2.5 metres and although I wouldn’t use one as a specimen plant, they are worthy of their place in the garden for their suitability to being trained against a south-facing wall. They have been cultivated in China for over 1000 years and so if you like a plant with a lot of history behind it, this is one for you. Again, like Hamamelis, they are used by florists to add fragrance to winter displays and are particularly useful in garden designs because they aren’t particularly fussy about soil ph.
Cottage gardens due to the pastels in the flower colours
Lighter coloured stone if training against a wall
Being planted near to buildings as the plant lacks appeal when used as a stand-alone shrub in a planting display
There are two flowering forms of Edgeworthia that we may come across; Chrysantha and Papyrifera. The difference between the two is that E. Chrysantha has a more rounded appearance as a shrub, the flower clusters are larger and upright and the stems are thicker, whereas with E. Papyrifera the flowers have a more nodding quality and it has more slender stems.
I first saw this plant in flower around 10 years ago at RHS Wisley but never used it in a design as it has a reputation for being difficult to get going. It desires the ‘holy grail’ of soil types; humus rich, loamy, moist but well drained and requires a sunny but sheltered position. However, provide it with soil and site perfection and if it is happy you’ll never have to worry about it as it is generally pest and disease free. It descends, once again, from China (notice a pattern here?) and has a beautifully sweet fragrance, much like that of its close relation, Daphne, hence its sometimes common name, Yellow Daphne. It also comes in a red-flowered version and an orange flowered one too. It is a great shrub for a garden design (if you have a client willing to ensure it gets off to a good start) due to its ability to hold its rounded shape as it grows, needing no pruning. It would, therefore, mix well within a garden as a specimen piece surrounded by cloud pruning or in a bed with other similarly shaped topiaried plants. The woody part of the plant is used to make paper in Japan and was historically used to make bank notes. As well as the wonderfully scented flowers in late winter, from late summer onwards it produces the flowers buds that add to the plants overall appeal and when the leaves drop allows it to maintain some appeal by having more than bare stems to look at. However, it’s the flowers that are the real appeal and if you can give Edgeworthia the home it requires it’ll repay you with a structure, elegance and fragrance almost unmatched in the shrub world.
Modern gardens due to its appealing, rounded habit
Being planted en masse to create a ‘Wow-factor’
As an unorthodox replacement for topiary spheres
Lonicera x purpusii
If this flower were a food it would undoubtedly be a lemon soufflé! Every time I push my nose into it I feel as if I’m about to start gulping the nectar of the gods! I’d have to say that this flower is among my favourite fragrances and shares its lemon perfume with another of my all-time favourites, Magnolia Grandiflora. Another great specimen shrub if you are looking for something that holds its rounded shape as it ages, although not so striking in leaf as it is in flower. I’ve often longed to use multiple plants of this planted in a large lawn, primarily because, especially in a large cottage garden, its summer shagginess would mirror the cottage planting style with its informality, it works well placed not too far away from larger trees and its scent hangs in the air on cold, misty days, drawing one outside to dream of citrusy French deserts! If one was to design a garden based on the formality of clipped Yew or Buxus but using plants that contrasted that formality with a more lackadaisical approach, almost like a poor persons Highgrove, these would be a superb replacement as what they lack in grace during the growing season, they make up for in charm during the winter months. They don’t work, for me, in smaller modern gardens but in more romantic, cottage or country gardens, with its laid-back air, they can be an essential component.
Cottage gardens, if given space to grow
Paired with York or other lighter, sandy-coloured stone
Planting near evergreen shrubs such as Taxus that highlight the appealing flowers in winter
The ghostly presence of these flowers in mid to late winter brightens up any dark space in the garden. I often plant these in gardens in far away corners as at dusk they seem to glow, drawing the eyes to places that may otherwise be ignored. These Hellebores bring the eye down to ground-level thus making use of all of that space that, at this time of year, gets overlooked for the more floriferous and fragrant larger shrubs. I think a mass planting of these looks fantastic in a dark corner. Their leaves also offer incredible interest due to their blue/grey tinges and architectural shape., adding to their spectral nature. However, for me, it’s the flowers that sing out on a damp, misty day. As the Latin name attests to, the fragrance is indeed fetid, hence the common name stinking Hellebore, but unless you get down close to the pale green/cream flowers and take a deep breath you’ll find the perfume doesn’t really carry as other winter flowerers do. They will grow in the dark, however I’ve always found that if they get a few hours of sun they tend to flop less and I always try to install these into a garden design as young plants as they can be quite difficult to keep upright after planting if doing so later in the year and if they’ve been sat in pots for a long time; they get top-heavy and are at risk of the stems snapping. But be bold with them and they certainly have a wow-factor. Just make sure you plant them with something that offers colour in the spring or summer, or at least under a large tree canopy, otherwise the leaves on their own can look quite unwelcoming.
Architectural planting schemes
En masse planting for an eye catching display
Dark, uninspiring corners
Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’
Although the majority of pussy willow are ‘budding’ in late-winter and so in my eyes are worthy of a space in most gardens, Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’ is even more remarkable as the buds open to a beautiful rose-pink, not a colour most of us associate with winter or trees. It is Japanese in origin and was developed by a cut-flower grower who clearly knew their beans as it looks fabulous in a vase too. What I like about pussy willows and why I use them in some of my own garden designs is that although late in the year there are no leaves or flowers, their shape is still of interest as a structural element and can be used in a planting design as a great focal point. However, it’s when the buds open to reveal the soft, tactile flowers that it really starts to come into its own and what I love about Mount Aso is that, even from a distance, the rose-pink flowers are visible. I find that sometimes with the white flowered varieties the blooms aren’t that apparent unless you are up close. The added bonus you get with pussy willow is that as the flowers get to the end of their cycle they coat themselves in yellow pollen in great number. When that happens it’s a great signifier that spring is almost upon us.
Another reason pussy willow are great shrubs/small trees to use in a planting design is that, due to their growth habit, they work well under planted with late winter bulbs such as crocus or early flowering daffodils. The branches can be pruned to the desired height above the soil level in autumn or winter in preparation for whatever is to flower underneath and can therefore act as a sort of ‘frame’ for highlighting other plants’ flowers (although true pruning should be undertaken after flowering). They are pretty easy going in terms of soil requirements too; just don’t plant them in shallow chalky soils. They require at least partial shade to full sun too to enable them to put on their great display of catkins.
Cottage or modern garden designs due to their appealing growth habit
Small gardens as focal points
Exposed sites, so ideal for coastal gardens and roof terraces
Most climbing plants, especially those that aren’t evergreen, can be a real eyesore in winter. A mass of dead-looking twigs, some of which, like Clematis Viticella or Wisteria, shouldn’t be cut or pruned until mid-late winter or even early spring, therefore contributing to a messy looking space in the winter garden. However, when many climbers are looking their most bedraggled, evergreen Clematis Cirrhosa is just coming into its own. With a number of varieties producing flower colours from pure white and creamy vanilla through to pale yellow with red ‘freckles’ and maroon-purple, they can be used to accentuate or contrast with other surrounding flowers or hard-landscaping colours. I tend to place them near a doorway so that they can scramble up a trellis or over the eaves of an outdoor porch so that the nodding flowers can be viewed from underneath. Not only do the flowers add a welcome addition to an otherwise bare outdoor space in the winter but they are followed by remarkably interesting seed heads that look like something out of a science fiction film and have an appealing silky look and texture. This extends the season even longer making this a great plant for longevity of interest. With some varieties, in the winter the end of the leaves take on a bronze tinge, adding yet even more winter appeal to an already fabulous and hard-working plant. They do need protection from cold winds and do best in full sun but I think that’s little to ask when they reward such care with fantastic flowers and evergreen, interestingly shaped leaves.
Cottage-style planting schemes.
Growing through large, deciduous shrubs
Near a path or a doorway in a spot where the flowers can be viewed from below
Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'
For winter fragrance it doesn’t get much more potent than a Daphne. Once again, hailing from China (what a beautifully fragrant place China must be in the winter!), many Daphne’s are evergreen and therefore work well in winter planting displays in containers. As they are slow-growers they tend to be used mainly in containers as in the garden they can be bullied by faster growing, larger shrubs but if allowed to spread their feet will reward you with a beautiful, shiny-leaved small shrub. Although Daphne’s can be placed anywhere in a garden, their elegance and jasmine-like fragrance really lends itself to being placed near a building entrance or next to a pathway. As with Sarcococca, many Daphne’s do well in relatively shady spots, adding to their versatility and as they are slow growing are generally maintenance free. D. Aureomarginata is a favourite of mine as the outer margins of the leaves are edged with golden yellow, a colour not greatly associated with winter. Although this species specifically needs at least some sun to thrive, I have seen them in shady spots flowering their socks off. I like to plant them in front gardens so that passers-by get to experience the joy of their strong scent, generally smelling them before seeing them.
Small urban gardens
No large garden that requires some winter interest should, in my opinion, be without a winter flowering Viburnum. I grow one in my own garden and have probably planted more of these for winter interest in gardens I have designed than any other plant. What I love about this species, as well as their cousins V. Bodnantense, and why they are so useful, is that their growth habit, when left to ‘do their thing’ is really like a small tree, starting off upright but becoming rounded at the crown with age. That means they can fit better into smaller spaces than many shrubs, being neat growers, but as they start to overtake their neighbours in height will form a neat canopy and therefore a focal point. The fragrance of the flowers always takes me back to being a child, reminding me of my grandparents. I don’t know if my grandparents even had one of these shrubs but there is something so familiar in their perfume. On a daily walk I pass one that fills the air with such strong scent that it regularly stops me in my tracks and yet, after a few years, I still haven’t located it, such is its ability to carry further in the cold winter air than most other flowers. Although I am not a great lover of its leaf shape or texture, like most winter flowerers it needs to be planted near a path or entrance to be made the most of, although it may grow too large to be placed too close to a doorway. Another aspect of this plant that I like is its ability to take a good prune so that it can be strategically cut to create something more interesting than its standard habit. This enables it to be placed in a more modern style setting which is at odds to how they are more commonly used. Oh, and guess where they originate from?
Pruning to interesting shapes
I haven’t even began to touch on the vast amount of winter flowering plants that are available to us. Honourable mentions for their beauty and/or fragrance should go to the winter flowering cherry, Prunus Subhirtella, the winter aconite and groundcover stalwart, Eranthis Hyemalis, Mahonia Japonica, with its sweet-scented yellow flowers and architectural form and Ipheion, a honey-scented, greatly underused plant that works well in winter containers. If one is eagle eyed and keeps their nasal cavities on high alert you can be rest assured that the winter months are choc-full of plants that can keep our gardens at the forefront of our minds, maybe not quite as much as in the spring and summer, but certainly more than we may initially believe.
So this year, as the days shorten, as hats and scarves are donned and as you hurry back to cosy, warm homes, don’t be fooled into thinking that the natural world is also hurrying to start its period of hibernation. As any good garden designer can show you, some gardens are just starting to spring to life.