"I must have flowers, always, and always," said the famous artist and passionate gardener Claude Monet, whose words ring especially true at this time of year when the sight of even the tiniest garden bloom brings a peculiarly intense joy. A shining example – an enduring winter classic – is Viburnum x bodnantense, the medium-sized, deciduous shrub whose clusters of perfumed, ice-pink, tubular flowers appear in profusion from November to March.
Another is the evergreen Mahonia, a tall, shade-loving shrub with handsome rosettes of spiny architectural leaves. Come winter, these are typically capped with slender racemes of pollinator-friendly, golden-yellow, deeply perfumed flowers that seem to glow in even the gloomiest and darkest of days. Recommended varieties include M x media 'Winter Sun' and M x intermedia 'Charity', while the ultra-elegant M lomarifolia is outstanding, but only in a mild and sheltered garden. And while I can happily do without the winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) and its naturally untidy growth habit, many other gardeners have a special place in their heart for this shrubby, long-flowering climber's good-humoured, undemanding ways and its jolly lemon-yellow blossoms which start to appear in early winter.
By comparison, a winter-flowering, hardy shrub that I couldn't be without is witch hazel (Hamamelis), whose starkly beautiful, scented, spidery blooms appear on bare branches. Depending on the variety, those paper-tissue-thin flowers come in shades of lemon, gold, marmalade, copper and red. One of the earliest into bloom – often in time for a few sprigs to be picked for the Christmas table – is the yellow-flowering Hamamelis mollis, which is widely available. For something slightly different, seek out the slightly later-flowering Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena', an award-winning variety with burnt-orange blooms from January-February. Whatever variety you choose, bear in mind the witch hazel needs a deep, humus-rich, fertile soil (ideally acid/neutral, but it will tolerate alkaline) in either full sun or light shade. Although naturally a slow-growing but spreading shrub, you can keep it more compact or even fan-train it against a wall by carefully pruning the previous year's growth back to two buds in spring after it's finished flowering.
Another intensely-perfumed shrub with winter flowers that appear in time for them to be used to decorate the Christmas/ New Year table is Sarcococca confusa, commonly known as sweet box. Slow-growing, shade-loving and hardy, it's an unassuming plant for much of the year. Even its clusters of small, pale flowers, which appear from early December to March, are modest in size, but they pack a surprisingly powerful punch in terms of their rich, vanilla-like fragrance. Slightly later-flowering but one of the best from this tough and undemanding genus of evergreen, shrubby plants is the floriferous Sarcococca 'Winter Gem' , a new hybrid form (available from Johnstown Garden Centre, one of its parents is the excellent S Purple Stem while the other is S hookeriana var humilis).
Stars of the winter garden
Hellebores, of course, are amongst the stars of the winter garden, even if the arrival of new plant diseases such as 'hellebore black death' and 'hellebore black spot' pose a threat that sends a shiver down most gardeners' spines. While it's one of the earliest into flower, my advice is to avoid the famously flighty Helleborus niger. Much more promising in terms of garden-worthiness is the newly-introduced Helleborus x sahinii 'Winter Bells' (a cross between H niger and H foetidus). While its tidy, weather-resilient clusters of pink-green flowers aren't especially showy, they appear from November right through until early spring. Well-known nurseryman Finlay Colley of Rare Plants Ireland (rareplantsireland.ie) also highly recommends Helleborus 'Golden Nectaries', another early flowering hellebore (of the Orientalis group) with pale yellow flowers that appear from late December right through to March. Yet another winter jewel on the stocklist of this excellent specialist nursery is the little-known Anisodontea 'El Royo', a shrubby member of the mallow family with pink/red flowers that appear most profusely at this time of year .
Other Irish specialist nurseries well worth checking out for their stock of winter-flowering gems include Dublin's Mount Venus Nursery. Along with the rare shade-loving, evergreen groundcover plant Pachyphragma macrophylla, which flowers for them from October-April, owners Oliver and Liat Schurmann recommend the newly -introduced Edgeworthia 'Fire Dragon' for its spectacularly beautiful, powder-puff red flowers (mountvenus.com).
Another horticultural treasure trove in terms of winter-flowering plants is the Carlow-based nursery, Altamont Plants (altamontplants.com). Its owner Robert Miller recommends the semi-hardy Camellia transnokoensis, an unusual, upright evergreen shrub/small tree prized for its pale elegant flowers – each one a ghostly halo of white petals encircling a cluster of golden stamens – that appear from December through to March. The same nursery is also well-known for its extensive collection of snowdrop varieties, including the exceptionally early-flowering Galanthus 'Mrs MacNamara', whose dainty, pearl-white, winter flowers appear in plenty of time to decorate the Christmas / New Year table. The latter, by the way, is a plant with a literary as well as an Irish connection; the lady after whom it's named was the French-Irish mother-in-law of the poet Dylan Thomas, the man who gave us the enduring classic that is A Child's Christmas in Wales . . .
This week in the garden
Mark the arrival of a new gardening year by bringing a little of the garden indoors to use as decorations for tonight’s celebrations . It might be something as simple as a handful of bare birch twigs placed in a vase, or a few sprigs of rosemary or pressed oak leaves used to decorate place cards, or even a sculptural branch artfully suspended above the dining table.
If you’re in the mood for a spot of serious gardening, then well-established currant bushes can be pruned now to encourage the plants to produce plenty of new, fruit-bearing branches next year. For blackcurrant bushes, use a sharp secateurs or loppers to remove any weak, spindly growth along with roughly a third of the plant’s shoots (the thickest, the oldest branches). Red and white currant bushes require a slightly different pruning method, In their case, remove any weak or spindly growth and then simply prune back/ shorten individual branches by about a quarter.