At this time of year, as I have noted before, any flower in the garden is to be celebrated. In our own, there are a few flowers hanging on valiantly after the summer, but not much evidence of what one might call winter flowers. A new garden like ours is like that; we have planted a great deal but there are seasonal ‘holes’ in the flowering schedule and the best way to plug that is to see what is flowering elsewhere. This is not as obvious as it sounds. Other gardens will not have precisely the same microclimate and plants in garden centres and nurseries, where they may have been forced and protected, often flower at very different times to those exposed to the vagaries of the weather. In the absence of flowers, evergreens are useful, particularly those with variegated or colourful leaves.
Feeling the need to see a few plants, the gardeners’ equivalent of comfort food, I dropped in on our local garden centre. Working my way through the Christmas tree display and the troughs of bare-rooted fruit trees, I was immediately attracted to a fine batch of Elaeagnus x ebbingei Limelight. Great for hedging, these tough evergreen shrubs are invaluable in the winter when the yellow variegated leaves shine out in otherwise dull gardens. In autumn and winter they carry flowers which, while not showy, have exquisitely sweet scent. Like all
Elaeagnus species, they have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria which form nodules on the roots producing fertiliser both for the plant and others nearby. At home we have Elaeagnus pungens Maculata, a related species which offers a similar bright leaf display, so no need to buy one of these.
The yellow flowers of Mahonia x. media make it one of the best winter-flowering plants to have in the garden. Chance offspring of Mahonia lomariifolia and Mahonia japonica at the Slieve Donard Nursery in Northern Ireland, seedlings were raised by John Russell at his Richmond Nursery in Surrey. They were planted out in the Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park (where I once woorked), where they first flowered in 1957. Head of the Royal Gardens at Windsor at the time was Mr Hope Finlay and seedlings Faith, Hope and Charity were named by him. ‘Charity’ went on to be recognised as the superb winter flowering shrub we all know it to be, with an RHS Award of Merit in 1959 and, in 1962, a First Class Certificate.
Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ has canary-yellow flowers from October to March, with a delicate fragrance – a useful source of nectar and pollen for bees out late or early in the year. The flowers are produced at the ends of new shoots with abundant racemes displayed at an angle. This is a plant with architectural quality and reaches about 2m in height. Each leaf has roughly 9 pairs of shiny, evergreen, opposite leaflets, angled slightly from the stem. I will decide where to plant todays purchase over the next few days but I’m delighted to have it sitting around near the house for the moment.
Pieris are valuable for winter and spring interest, some with colourful foliage, some with lovely flowers and some with both. Pieris japonica Little Heath is a delightful dwarf evergreen shrub with leaves edged in silver. Young foliage is shrimp pink and winter flower buds are soft mauve pink, opening to white bells in the early spring. They are long lasting in a vase as well. I can’t help but think we should have lots of Pieris varieties in the garden so I bought a nice specimen of Little Heath to get us started. I may plant it in the shade of the house at the front, where the little raised bed would suit it, it could go in a pot by the front door or perhaps in the Oriental Garden under the Sequoia. We shall see.