In the dreary months of winter, there are still treasures to be found for the garden. Winter-blooming woody plants are too seldom seen and too little known, for no good reason other than that people are less inclined to venture out to a nursery or public garden to see plants in flower at that season.
Winter is a special time to have blossoms around us, and several flowering trees and shrubs can be recommended for their ease of care and permanence in the garden. Their branches also provide excellent cut material to be enjoyed indoors. The following are just a few of the plants that give me particular pleasure for their contributions to the winter garden.
A star among winter-blooming plants is wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), whose small yellow flowers, produced in great abundance, perfume the air in late winter. British garden books often comment that no one who has smelled it in bloom ever forgets its scent. The cultivar ‘Grandiflorus’ has somewhat larger flowers marked with maroon brown on the petals; ‘Concolor’ has all-yellow flowers that are a bit smaller. Pointed oval leaves furnish the bush during the growing season and turn to gold in fall before they drop. It can easily be kept trimmed to any height below its mature stature of ten to fifteen feet tall and eight feet wide.
Careful placement in the garden will enhance wintersweet’s value in winter, particularly if it is planted where the fragrance can be enjoyed indoors, such as by a window or much-used doorway. It makes a fine foundation plant for the side yard, as it can be kept trimmed back to form a narrower profile; prune branches in winter so the flowers and fragrance can be enjoyed indoors.
Wintersweet likes full sun but will also tolerate a goodly amount of shade. Any soil will suit it, remembering that humus or compost will improve sandy or heavy soils and enhance its growth and flowering. Watering needs are not high; regular watering will serve the plant nicely. [Sunset zones 4- 9, 14-21]
An Old Favorite
We can now choose from a number of distinctly different cultivars of the familiar flowering quince (Chaenomeles spp.). There are larger selections with new floral colors and double flowers; smaller ones fit into almost any gardening situation, and contorted forms are particularly suitable for containers. Tough, long-lived, and easily grown, their bare branches provide excellent lines for the garden or vase.
Among my favorite flowering quinces are ‘Hime’, which means princess in Japanese. Small red flowers appear in great profusion—like red firecrackers exploding all along the branch. This is a larger shrub, at least six feet by six feet. ‘Oyashima’ has double white flowers, also on a larger shrub. ‘Falconet Charlot’ and ‘Red Charlot’ have double flowers of salmon red and deeper red, respectively. I particularly like ‘Iwai Nishiki’ for its large red double flowers.
One of the most outstanding selections is the dark flowered ‘Kuro Koji’—the “black quince.” It has brilliantly dark flowers with shining maroon black petals of good size. Of slightly slower growth, it adds a striking accent to any planting and is greatly enjoyed as a cut flower.
Among the smaller unusual quinces is the rare ‘Choju Bai’, the only one with yellow flowers. A slow grower, it is worth searching for, as the small, creamy yellow, single flowers cover the plant for a long period in late winter.
With their twisted stems, the several contorted forms provide interest through the year. The large single flowers of ‘Contorta’ are blushed pink over white; temperatures at flowering time will determine how white the flowers will be. ‘Contorta Orange’ is a small but choice, single-flowered orange selection with twisted branches. I saw a rare double white-flowered contorted plant long ago, but have never located a plant to grow. I hope, one day, to find it and reintroduce it to other garden enthusiasts. [Sunset zones 2-23]
More from Japan
Japanese paper bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha), known as mitsumata in Japan, is an unusual plant for winter flowers and fragrance. Individual flowers are small and tubular, but presented in a dense pendulous cluster. The sides of the tubes are usually whitish, and the face of the flowers yellow; the cultivar ‘Red Dragon’ has red-tinged flowers. Long narrow leaves dress the plant during the growing season. Its branches split into threes at each node—an uncommon pattern—and the result is a distinctive tiered effect, not unlike an elaborate candelabra. Capable of reaching eight feet tall, it is most often seen at no more than five to six feet tall and wide. Good drainage, regular watering, and part sun in hot areas or full sun in cooler areas will encourage the heaviest flowering. [Sunset zones 5-9, 14-24]
Prunus mume is a long-cultivated plant in the Orient and is symbolic as one of the “three friends of winter” (pine, bamboo, and plum). Usually called Japanese flowering plum or apricot, it is neither but bears similarities to both plums and apricots. Profuse flowers cover the tree early in the year and scent the air with a clean spicy fragrance. Flowers are small, but heavily borne and come in whites, pinks, and reds. There are both upright and weeping forms, and either single or double flowers. I particularly like ‘Koten Bai’ with contorted stems and double white flowers. Some rare selections have variegated flowers striped or edged in contrasting colors. For the bonsai enthusiast, there are others with variegated stem colors on young branches. The weeping trees are the most elegant; they need training up to a desired height, from which their branches cascade down with showers of blossoms. Many will produce fruit that can be used to flavor a sweet liquor or eaten as preserved dried fruits. These trees like a sunny location in well-drained soil. A hot, sunny location will ripen the wood and result in better flowering. This member of the great rose family can live a long time; several hundred years is not uncommon. [Sunset zones 3-9, 12-22]
Two honeysuckles (Lonicera fragrantissima and L. standishii) are tough, easy-care shrubs, tolerant of light to heavy soils and sun to part shade. Although small, their blooms are profuse and sweetly scented. Winter is their prime time; they commence flowering in October and continue until April or May. They provide wonderful cut material as well. [Sunset zones 1-9, 14-24]
Lonicera fragrantissima is somewhat taller (eight to twelve feet); L. standishii is shorter and broader (six to eight feet tall and wide). Both have white flowers turning to pale yellow as they age, on stiff arching growth, with pointed oval leaves that may persist through the winter if temperatures are warm. Fall color can be yellow to tan. They tolerate pruning well and should be placed in the landscape where the fragrance can be enjoyed. They may not be showy plants throughout the year, but they give so much pleasure that any garden without one is truly lacking.
The author returned in the January 2009 issue to share his favorite woody plants for winter displays of bark and foliage.