Winter flowers make a heady statement in the garden

camellia
Flowers of Camellia sasanqua appear as early as December. Photo by Neil Bell.
Last Updated: 
January 2, 2015

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Just as the worst of the weather makes an appearance, the flowers of winter arrive, blooming as cheerfully as the showoffs of spring.

“One of the coolest things about gardening in the Pacific Northwest is winter gardens,” said Neil Bell, a horticulturist with Oregon State University’s Extension Service . “We have the opportunity to plant things that people who are not aware of or even interested in gardening will look at it and be amazed. The way to do that is with flowers and scents.”

One of the most showy of the cold-weather shrubs, Bell said, is Mahonia ‘Charity,’ a relative of native Oregon grape with bountiful spikes of yellow blooms as big as baseball bats. The large evergreen leaves give the plant a tropical look and make it a standout in the shady perspective it thrives in. Snow is no deterrent for this easy-care, 10-foot shrub that will take temperatures down to minus 5. A bonus is the multitude of dark purple berries that feed birds when they especially need the nutrients.

“Spring is overwhelming with flowers,” Bell said, “but in winter it’s surprising.  It’s nice to see something that’s so unexpected. And then there’s the scent; such an enjoyable thing.”

For those who are only familiar with camellias that bloom in spring, Camellia sasanqua will come as a pleasant surprise, Bell said. Blooming right smack in the middle of winter, this 8-foot camellia doesn’t get the mushy, brown flowers some hybrids display. White-blooming ‘Setsugekka’ is easily found, as is ‘Yuletide,’ the most popular of the Camellia sasanqua with its Santa Claus-red flowers decorated with prominent puffs of yellow stamens that provide sustenance for overwintering Anna hummingbirds.

In the darkest part of the year – sometimes before Christmas -- the vanilla perfume of sweetbox hovers on the air. The small white flowers aren’t a big deal, but the scent more than makes up for that. The shiny, dark green foliage is similar to its relative the boxwood and useful as a hedge or backdrop for colorful perennials and annuals in other seasons. Several species are on the market, most commonly Sarcococca ruscifolia and S. confusa, both topping out at 5 feet. They’ll take temperatures down to around 5 degrees and grow happily in shady, dry areas of the garden, where most other plants turn up their toes.

Blooming October through March, two months earlier than the Oregon native flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), is the chaparral currant (R. malvaceum) of the California coastal ranges. The 5-foot shrub attracts hummingbirds that will sip the nectar and forage for bugs among the foliage and sweetly fragrant, downward-facing pink flowers. Other birds will snatch the fruit for their meals, usually before humans get to it. Many gardeners will be happy to know that deer will typically leave chaparral currant alone.

Bell, who is gearing up to create a winter garden at Extension’s new Master Gardener demonstration garden in Independence, can’t finish his list without mentioning native silk tassel (Garrya elliptica). There’s no missing the waterfall of creamy, bell-shaped catkins dangling in long chains of 8 inches or more. The large shrub can grow up to 12 feet tall and wide, has glossy green leaves with white undersides and is drought tolerant.

These five shrubs, all of which are hardy down to about 5 degrees, are on Bell’s short list. Others worth researching, he said, are witch hazel (Hamamelis), winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), manzanita (Arctostaphylos), ‘Dawn’ viburnum, wintersweet (Chimonanthus) and Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’).

“Gardening in winter is not that hard to do,” Bell said. “You just have to adopt it as a concept.”

 

Author: Kym Pokorny
Source: Neil Bell