Flowering plants make colorful winters

Last Updated: 
March 3, 2010

crocus photo by Linda McMahon

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Flowering plants that bloom in the winter burst into color in the midst of rain and gray weather, proving that there can always be a time when something in the garden is abloom.

Most people are familiar with late-winter bloomers like forsythia and crocus, which flower in early February, and white or pink winter-blooming heaths. To further enhance winter months, OSU Extension horticulturist Linda McMahan suggests planting less-common trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants for all eye levels of the garden.

"You might have to look carefully for a few of these plants – some are available only at specialty nurseries – but they are well worth the search," she said.

Some of the boldest, such as witch hazel, are considered a small tree or large shrub. Its light-to-dark yellow flowers typically bloom in December, January or February in Oregon. Two species – American witch hazel (H. virginiana) and Ozark witch hazel (H. vernalis) – are natives, while H. japonica and H. mollis are from Asia.

"Perhaps the most popular is the Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis),” McMahan said. "Its bright yellow flowers brighten any winter day and it also has fall coloration."

Hybrid forms also are available, such as H. x intermedia. McMahan's advice is to plant witch hazel in full or filtered sunlight and provide summer irrigation for best success. They are hardy in USDA Zones 5 or higher.

For blooms in December and January, look for another small tree or large shrub, the Camellia sasanqua. Unlike the more familiar Japanese camellias, the sasanqua camellia blooms earlier and grows in an open form. However, like its more common relative, it has been bred for many colorful flowers, from pure white to pinks and reds. This species is evergreen and hardy to USDA Zone 7; it prefers rich soil with regular summer irrigation.

Another large shrub called wintersweet is known botanically as Chimonanthus praecox. As the name suggests, this January bloomer produces a powerful and sweet fragrance, McMahan said, and flowers are waxy and light-to-medium yellow. Wintersweet grows to USDA Zone 6, making it suitable for much of western Oregon and Washington. It is deciduous, bush-like because it grows from multiple trunks, and prefers sun to light shade and regular watering in well-drained soil.

"For fragrance on a smaller scale, try sweetbox in the genus Sarcocca," McMahan said. Several species and hybrids are available, but the most common is sold as S humilis or S. confusa. "This compact evergreen shrub from China makes a bold statement. The flowers are white and fragrance amazing.

"Because they are hardy to only USDA Zone 7-9, I have had these January-February bloomers right outside my front door in a protected area so I could appreciate every day of their bloom," she said. The flowers are followed by attractive, shiny black berries that persist for much of the year. These shrubs, which grow three to five feet tall, prefer part shade, rich soil and regular irrigation.

Another shrub from China is winter jasmine, Jasminium nudiflorum. It blooms off and on between November and February. Some forms are hardy to USDA Zone 6, making it suitable for most of western Oregon. This species is not fragrant, but has bright yellow flowers and is deciduous and almost vine like.

"Two herbaceous plants – cyclamen and hellebores – are worth the effort," McMahan said. Hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen coum) flowers in November or December, followed by colorful variegated leaves. Flowers are a medium to deep pink, and each flowering stem uncurls like a corkscrew as it emerges. The plant grows from an underground storage unit called a corm, which is often sold with fall bulbs, but many nurseries offer them as potted plants as well. Make sure to shop by species names as less hardy species also are available. This species comes from Middle Eastern countries and is hardy to USDA Zone 5.

Sometimes called Lenton Rose or Christmas rose, Hellebores come in several colors and foliage forms. They are sturdy and grow one to two feet tall, with large flowers in white, yellow, green, pink or purple. Some of the species are hardy to USDA Zone 4, making them suitable for gardens throughout most of Oregon. In most places, you can expect blooming to begin by late February.

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Linda McMahan