Originally published on MSNBC.com
One damp, blustery day, my husband came in after drying the dogs and asked what the wonderful scent was on the side of the driveway. Sight unseen he had discovered the innocuous Sarcococca hookeriana. Here’s a plant you could easily walk by even when it’s in full bloom with nary a glance, save for that sweet fragrance. Scent is an important aspect of the winter garden. Winter flowering plants have to attract scarce pollinators. Harsher weather conditions don’t allow them to spend their energy in flamboyant flowers; so, to get the word out, many use scents. Sarcococcas, also called Christmas box, are especially useful because they will grow in deep shade or on the north side of the house. S. humilis is smaller growing to only a foot or two high and S. confusa has a broader leaf. All are hardy to USDA Zone 6.
When I first started planting my garden, a friend suggested that I MUST get wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). Dutifully, I perused the nurseries and found a variety called ‘Concolor’ which has canary-colored, delicately scented tiny silk flowers. It’s a vigorous shrub, so I sited it well out past the perennial garden where it could have its head. That was a mistake. I rarely enjoy its sweet fragrance that graces the lower (and decidedly muddy) paths in the back of the garden. I have learned since that for plants that are at their glory in midwinter, whether that is their scent, flowers, or berries, one should think very carefully about citing.
Late winter/early spring is a time of subtle pleasures. Plants you might not give two thoughts to at any other time of the year become paramount events. You are less likely to be idly strolling through the deepest reaches and out of the way corners of your garden, so you need to plan where to plant those winter displays and first harbingers of spring. I have to admit, there are days in the winter, even weeks when I don’t even WALK through, let alone do things in all parts of my garden. With over a half mile of crisscrossing paths, you can bet I don’t see every one of them every day. Mind you, these are the same paths on which I spend hours on my hands and knees in the spring and summer months.
But even if your garden doesn’t measure in acres, the likelihood of intense daily scrutiny is remote when the weather is awful. I planted a ‘drift’ of winter aconite (Eranthus hyemalis) deep in my maple and rhododendron hillside on a side path. I figured that it would lighten up the dark area early on in the season. Since I wasn’t wandering along that particular path for several weeks, I missed them. Now I plant them along the main path to our guest house along with glory-of- the-snow (Chinodoxa), Cyclamen coum, spring snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) and other early treasures.
I envy reading the words of the passionate British aristocracy of the late nineteenth century as they relished every moment in the garden, swooning over the tiny subtleties of each snow drop (Galanthus) variety. Somehow with the pressures of modern life (without the head gardener, woodsman, and household staff, mind you) I don’t seem to have that kind of time. So make sure you don’t miss any of it! Plant where you, your family, and your guests are likely to travel.
When weather is foul, one makes a beeline to cross the terrain to do the necessaries. So, why not plant a winter fragrant shrub such as koreanspice viburnum (V. carlesii) with waxy, rich scented inflorescences or witch hazel (Hamamelis) by the garbage cans? Actually, I also have masses of Oriental lilies planted around the little brick platform that houses our trash and recycling bins. That way, it’s pleasurable during summer as well to bring out the refuse on the evening before collection day. Think about your household rituals (for any time of year) and try to plan your landscaping and plantings to enhance those experiences. You needn’t think only in terms of hiding some of the unpleasant tasks and places, think also of elevating your experiences of them.
As I walked to the garden shed, rakes in hand, on a woodland path near the bell tower, I was struck by the wonderful effect that small patterned leaves make at this time of year. Over the years I have planted dozens of tubers of Cyclamen hederifolium (also sold frequently as C. neapolitanum). The leaves are wonderfully varied: heart-shaped, kite-shaped, large shields to small pointy triangles. Additionally, the patterns on the leaves are equally varied with kaleidoscopic patterns of light and dark veins, blotches and streaks of deep forest green to silvery gray. Many of these tubers originally came from the gardens of friends, so a walk down this path has good connotations for me. Cyclamen are good self-seeders as well, so soon you will find distant cousins scattered about in your garden.
For colder than Zone 7 gardens, there are several other delightful cyclamen to enjoy in winter. We have several healthy clusters of Cyclamen coum just outside the living room windows. These determined pink beauties are in full bloom right now. The leaves are smaller the C. hederifolium and more rounded. They do, however have lots of variation, including the Pewter Group with very handsome gray leaves and central veins of dark green. The flowers of these cyclamen are smaller than the florist varieties (Cyclamen persicum). If you live in a warm climate, you can enjoy those more flamboyant beauties as well as less common species such as Cyclamen purpurascens outside in the garden. I can only experience their sweet fragrance if I keep them sheltered through the winter in pots in my enclosed and heated porch.
Berries are another source of winter delight. They can provide birds with food and you with aviary entertainment. I was out raking leaves and sweeping our stone steps last week. Masses of birds interrupted my work with their squabbling in the huge volunteer holly trees (probably an escaped Ilex aquifolium). They lightened a pretty boring project. Later that day, while doing a bit of maintenance on our fountain, I was distracted by a band of chestnut backed chickadees gathering at the hips of my Rugosa roses. They seem to have a particular fondness for the dark red fruits of ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’ and were feisty enough to sit on her branches pecking at the hips while I was barely inches away.
Not all winter berries and fruit are bird feeders. Though they won’t attract the lively winter avians, they aren’t stripped in an afternoon’s feasting either. The dark lavender berries of Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’ nearly always elicit exclamations from folks unfamiliar with them. It’s such an unexpected and unlikely color, especially on a cold winter day.
The metallic blue berries of Viburnum tinus ‘Pink Prelude’ would be stunning in themselves, but are doubly intriguing as the pink clusters of flowers are out now in mid-winter as well. Though this particular species is a bit tender (Zone 8), I have a few bushes in a sheltered location. You should plant more than one for better fruiting. The vast viburnum genus is replete with shrubs that produce good red, blue or black fruit for many different climate zones. Sheepberry, Viburnum lentago, with blue-black berries is reportedly hardy to USDA Zone 2, so check with your local nurseries for species and varieties that hardy are for you and that also will bear fruit in your area.
Going into the cold is not the only way to be enjoy your winter garden. Outside of my study window are several clumps of Iris foetidissima. One could certainly find more prestigious and magnificent flowers in the extensive iris family, but watching the great pods split to reveal bright orange berries in the winter are worth the lack of floral esteem. Here’s an example where it pays not to be too fastidious in deadheading spent flowers. You would miss the true glory of these plants.
Speaking of iris, here’s another one worth getting. Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ is not likely to be found in your local bigbox garden centers, but is readily available in better nurseries and loads of catalogs; it’s well worth the extra search. This is a delicately detailed flower, a stop-hold-everything-admire-me sort of flower. A flower you do not want to relegate to the ‘a little color under the shrubbery’ sort of place. Put it where you will notice it immediately when it blooms, so that you can rush out in the early spring and inspect it, especially if you live in a place where slugs or snails are a problem. As with all the other reticulata irises, it’s only four to six inches tall, so if you have a ledge or wall top, this is a perfect location.
Whatever you taste in winter attractions: eye-catching berries, wafting fragrances, leaf fantasies, or emergent flowers, remember to take into account inclement weather and restricted outdoor activities when you place them. It’s always important to have access to garden features, but this is a time when its especially difficulty to enjoy them. You don’t want to have to tell your guests to bring their hip boots because you want to show them something wonderful in the garden.