If you thought there wasn’t much to look at outside at this time of year – think again. Dozens of beautiful trees and shrubs are at their colourful best in December and into early spring and here are some of my favourites.
Flourishing in the coldest part of our Derbyshire garden are some of the winter flowering cherries. Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ bears flutters of white flowers throughout winter from November till Easter; it’s close relative, Prunus subhirtella ‘Rosea’ is similar with soft pink flowers.
The subtle difference, apart from the colour, which I have noted over the years is that the white form usually has a few flowers virtually continuously during winter unless the weather is exceptionally cold whereas the pink clone has bolder flushes of flowers off and on during this period.
Elsewhere in our arboretum, Prunus subhirtella ‘Fukubana’ is growing into a small tree bearing delicate, semi-double rose pink flowers sometimes as early as February during mild winters and the Japanese Apricot, Prunus mume ‘Beni-Shidare’, is now a small, distinctly lollipop shaped tree flowering in late winter or early spring when its’ rich carmine pink flowers exude a powerful perfume.
Three , perhaps more unusual choices for flowering winter interest are the Golden Alder Alnus incana ‘Aurea’, Persian Ironwoods Parrotia persica and Parrotiopsis jacquemontii, both surprisingly members of the witch hazel family.
The Golden Alder is a slender, rather smaller tree than wild alders with soft yellow foliage all summer and really conspicuous bright yellow, flushed red catkins often during the harshest weather.
The best selection of ironwood, Parrotia persica ‘Vanessa’ has a myriad of breathtaking autumn colours, indeed the clonal name “Vanessa” refers to the genus of butterflies which includes red admirals. During winter it bears clusters of velvety crimson flowers, interesting rather than showy but yet more interest for the winter garden.
Parrotiopsis jacquemontii is a large shrub or small tree, preferring a woodland garden and bears conspicuous creamy white flowers in late winter or early spring, rather like small versions of the American or Chinese flowering dogwoods.
Arguable the finest winter flowering shrubs or very small trees, witch hazels, will break into full blossom during the New Year. As a young nurseryman in the seventies, there were very few varieties available; nowadays you could find over 100 cultivars in specialist collections.
Witch hazels are hardy, surprisingly wind tolerant and suitable for most situations other than shallow soils over chalk. They have one real need, good drainage and they absolutely won’t tolerate wet feet!
Despite all the improvements, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ is rightly still a firm favourite with its’ strap-like, sulphur yellow flowers and a deliciously sweet perfume. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ is still one of the best red flowered varieties and also has fiery autumn colours but little scent. A recent introduction, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aurora’ has especially bold strap like, scented orange yellow flowers and fantastic autumn colour.
Looking now at smaller plants, already the first few buds of winter sweet, Chimonanthus praecox and the Nepalese Daphne bholua are just opening as I write in mid December, their perfume is heavenly, you’ll never buy anything that smells so good in a bottle!
Other woody plants will soon burst forth shortly after the New Year, one of my favourites is the winter flowering honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissima and Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ (both completely indistinguishable to me). This tough, hardy, semi-evergreen shrub is one of the very few plants which will actually perform better in a cold, exposed and open situation. There it will become completely deciduous and far showier as the flowers can’t hide behind the foliage.
Connoisseurs might look out for the very rare Lonicera elisae. Sadly this winter flowering species (the first buds are already opening) lacks fragrance but the ivory white flowers are much bolder than Lonicera fragrantissima and, during the summer months the young foliage is flushed with chocolate purple.
Robert Vernon the Younger, is the owner of Bluebell Arboretum and Nursery in south Derbyshire.
Robert Vernon | 07:00 UK time, Monday, 19 December 2011