I see no reason to attempt to convince anyone that growing flowers in their garden through the winter months is worthwhile. For someone who ventures outdoors only to get to the warmth of their automobile there is no earthly reason to make any effort to plant flowers that are never seen. I’m not crazy enough to wander about the garden on cold, gray days when the wind is howling (today!), but there are enough days suitable for outdoor exploration that I find planting for winter flowers richly rewarding.
Until recent years hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus, above and below) would occasionally show a bit of color in my garden early in February, but never sooner, and seldom were any blooms fully opened before late in the month. Several years ago they were buried (along with the rest of garden) under a few feet of snow that persisted into early March when the first flowers peeked through as the snow melted. This became most disappointing when the hellebores faded after several weeks in the warm, early spring sun.
For the past few years the hellebores have begun flowering in January, and last year there were scattered blooms late in December. Still, the flowers continued into the middle of March with only few of the earliest bloomers fading sooner. Hellebores are perfectly suited to gardeners who are undisturbed by a bit of cold, or by the need to get down in the mud to appreciate the nodding flowers. Even on the largest clumps the flowers can not be seen from more than a few paces away, so hellebores are not the plant to impress the neighbors as they drive past.
A few weeks ago I cut back the foliage so that the flowers would be more prominent. At the time the leaves were unblemished and green, but often they will brown along the edges in late winter, so the plant is greatly improved when the foliage is removed. It grows back quickly once flowering has ended, and by mid spring hellebores are again full and lush.
This afternoon, I noticed many new seedlings growing beside the parent plants, and a few more that strayed a bit further. Several of the large hellebore clumps are in fact several plants growing together as seedlings have sprouted and intermingled with the parents, and this is only evident when slight differences in flowers are observed. Most often I’ll transplant the seedlings once they’ve reached a size to have adequate roots. Several times I’ve lost undersized transplants to a dry spring, so now I err on the side of caution and wait for a larger plant to move. There are so many that I can’t attest to the age at which they begin to bloom, but it seems that I don’t see flowers until at least the second year after they have mature sized foliage. After a few years the gardener doesn’t care, and probably doesn’t know which ones were store bought from the ones that are seedlings, since neither is superior.
I suppose that I could be perfectly content if hellebores were the only winter blooms in the garden, but I don’t object that there are more. Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum, above) is a slightly more refined, earlier flowering, and certainly smaller growing shrub than the ubiquitous forsythia that flowers on every street corner in the neighborhood in mid March (though the flowers and arching habit are similar). There is a utilitarian appeal to winter jasmine in preventing erosion on slopes as its stems root wherever they touch soil, but it is a sufficiently likable shrub if only for the clear yellow blooms that are dependably scattered from early January into March.
The flower buds of the paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) have been on hold since late January, but Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) has also reset its schedule in recent winters to flower earlier into February. It’s peak is still a few weeks off, but there is enough color in the middle of February to satisfy the flower starved gardener.
The hybrid witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) make the most prominent display of flowers in February, if only because they are the largest of the winter flowering shrubs. The yellow ‘Arnold Promise’ (above) and red ‘Diane’ (below) begin to show some color late in January, but despite blizzards or unseasonably warm temperatures they are certain to reach their peak in mid February. On still days the fragrance wafts across the back garden, undeniably signaling that spring is near.