Brian Minter: Garden color in January is a West Coast treat

If ever there was a time when we could use a little color support from our gardens, it’s now.

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If ever there was a time when we could use a little color support from our gardens, it’s now. Garden color in January is a West Coast treat. Unfortunately, folks living in the north and eastern parts of the province will have to be patient a bit longer.

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In the southwestern regions of BC the cold spell we had from mid-December until mid-January has slightly delayed the usual sequence of winter blooming color. In the eastern Valley, we experienced temperatures of -20 C with cold outflow winds, and we still have some ice and snow. However, I was delighted to see our earliest daffodil, Rijnveld’s Early Sensation, coloring up nicely. We won’t see any snowdrops until the snow melts, but they’re ready to bloom, and my winter favorites, yellow Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite), will be right behind them.

We often take winter-flowering heathers (ericas) for granted, but some of the earlier flowering varieties have been in bloom since late October. Planted in groupings of three or more, they deliver real impact. Bright pink or purple heathers poking through the snow is a visual delight. Heather groupings are also a great place to interplant early crocuses, daffodils and beautiful blue grape hyacinths.

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Prunus mume.
Prunus mume. Photo by Minter Country Garden /PNG

If you’re lucky enough to have the winter flowering cherry, Prunus Autumnalis, it has been showing off its pink, semi-double flowers since November. Because of its sequential blooming habit, it’s truly a resilient winter plant. The cold weather froze its early blooms, but now, new buds are opening. Actually, I’m looking at one as I write this article, and I have to say, seeing a flowering cherry in bloom now is an uplifting experience.

I know salix (the willow family) can be invasive if they’re not root-pruned to keep them in check, but the popularity of pussy willows continues to grow. There are miniature weeping varieties being sold now that grow only about two feet tall and wide but still have those charming silver catkins. Very early blooming varieties start showing their silver catkins as early as November. Used in cut bouquets, along with daffodils and tulips, they look especially delightful. The black variety, Salix leucopithecia Lubber’s Zwart, really doesn’t have much of an impact outdoors, but it’s a showstopper in cut bouquets. I saw a stunning hot pink variety at a show in Germany, but it will take time for this exceptional variety to arrive over here – I keep watching for it.

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At the entrance to VanDusen Gardens on Oak Street in Vancouver is a stunning Chinese plum called Prunus Mume. It’s an absolute jewel, especially in late January and early February when it blooms in a blaze of hot pink. It also comes in soft pink and white. While these beauties may not be readily available in most garden centers, it’s worth the effort to search them out.

When exiting VanDusen’s parking lot, there’s another gem called Garrya elliptica by James Grief. This broadleaf evergreen has overly long catkins, much like a hazelnut. This plant is both intriguing and a beautiful winter specimen.

Lonicera fragrantissima is an amazing shrub honeysuckle that actually does well in wet, coastal weather. It’s just coming into bloom now and has a perfume that will knock your socks off. Winter fragrance is a rarity and is, perhaps, more appreciated now than at any other time of the year. It has a long blooming period, which is more common during times of cooler temperatures.

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In early February, when I see folks suddenly stopped in their tracks, looking somewhat bewildered and not knowing where that burst of beautiful fragrance is coming from, I have to chuckle. It’s probably coming from Sarcococca humilis (Himalayan sweet box), an unassuming, low-growing, green ground cover that thrives in the shade and flowers at this time of year with the most wonderful perfume. There are also taller sizes, like S. ruscifolia. It’s a great foundation plant and works well in a shade container. All varieties of flowers in winter with tiny, inconspicuous, starlike, white blooms.

Hamamelis (Chinese witch-hazel).
Hamamelis (Chinese witch-hazel). Photo by Minter Country Garden /PNG

Hamamelis (Chinese witch-hazel), with its unique, spider-like blossoms, are now putting on quite a display. Yellow varieties, such as H. mollis, H. Arnold Promise and H. pallida, are the ones with a beautiful perfume, and their coloring shows off nicely in darker winterscapes. The deep, rich red of H. Diane has become quite popular, and the coppery orange blooms of H. Jelena make quite a vibrant display against a snowy background.

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The earliest flowering dogwood is a winter beauty with drooping clusters of primrose-like yellow flowers. Cornus mascula, often known as the Cornelian cherry, is just now beginning to bloom. It’s a curious dogwood that produces delicious, edible, red cherry-like fruit in late summer and has gorgeous reddish-purple leaves in autumn.

Although it can be hard to find, Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet) is a shrub that is right at home in a woodland setting. It grows about 10 to 12 feet tall and has light yellow, highly fragrant flowers that open in mid- to late February.

Jasmine nudiflorum (winter jasmine) has already been in bloom for quite some time with massive numbers of tiny yellow flowers. It looks especially lovely growing on a rustic fence, arbor or trellis. For the now spectacular display all winter, train this semi-vine into a nicely espaliered form.

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V. tinus Spring Bouquet.
V. tinus Spring Bouquet. Photo by Minter Country Garden /PNG

Both Viburnum Pink Dawn and V. tinus Spring Bouquet have been in flower for some time, and depending on the location and winter weather, they will continue to bloom for a long period.

Corylopsis pauciflora (buttercup winter hazel) is another yellow, winter beauty. Growing five to six feet, it’s an amazing late February / March flowering Japanese native. Bees are particularly fond of this plant.

During winter, when we get a series of warmer days with temperatures reaching upwards of 10 C, many bees will emerge looking for both pollen and nectar. Having winter flowering plants in your garden will help them, as well as Anna’s hummingbirds. All these plants share their beauty with us at a time when we could use a lift, and they supply a vital food source for some of our local wildlife.

It’s important to remember that, for an earlier show, the winter-flowering beauties I’ve mentioned must be planted in more sheltered, western- or southern-facing locations where they will have better protection from the cold.

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