There’s something especially valuable about shrubs that flower in winter’s short and often dreary days. Seeing these delightful and resilient flowers taking frost, rain and snow in their stride lifts our spirits. Many are fragrant and can be cut for indoor winter posies.
Evergreen viburnums are also invaluable in winter. My pick is always ‘Gwenllian’, raised at Kew about 50 years ago. While not quite as compact as ‘Eve Price’, or with the pure white flowers of ‘French White’, the combination of deep pink buds opening to blushed white flowers followed by generous blue-black berries – often all on the plant at the same time in winter – ensures it stands out. 10ft (3m)
Another deciduous shrub valued for its combination of colour and fragrance. Deep rose red buds opening to white flowers with pink tints are gathered in clusters along the bare branches and are usually produced so prolifically that twigs can be cut for the house without spoiling the display. The flowers are also unexpectedly tolerant of frost. 10ft (3m)
Plants for wet soils in winter and dry soils in summer
We tend to think of skimmias as valuable for their bright red berries, but this is a form for which the flowers are the main feature. In fact the plant is male and never produces berries but the large conical clusters of fragrant creamy white flowers, set against aromatic evergreen foliage, are impressive over many weeks. ‘Kew Green’ will also pollinate female skimmias to ensure they produce berries. 3ft (90cm)
One of a group of outstanding AGM-winning winter flowering hybrids (‘Buckland’, ‘Lionel Fortescue’ and ‘Winter Sun’ also have awards), ‘Underway’ is the toughest of them all and is also a little shorter than the others. Its long vertical spikes of slightly scented yellow flowers are really impressive, especially set against the rows of dark, holly-like leaflets. 10ft (3m)
Another valuable combination of colourful flowers and powerful fragrance. Raised at the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts, ‘Arnold Promise’ is unusual in combining prolific flowering with a strong sweet scent and then in autumn also features red, orange and yellow autumn foliage colour. Other forms, ‘Diane’, ‘Jelena’ and ‘Pallida’, have also been awarded AGMs. 12ft (4m), eventually.
RHS Garden Rosemoor's February plant of the month
Old favourite ‘Springwood White’ is still the outstanding white winter heather. With trailing growth and long white flowers set against dark foliage it’s simply so prolific, so colourful and so reliable. And, like all forms of E. carnea, it does not demand acid soil so can be grown in any garden and is also a favourite for winter containers. 9in (23cm)
RHS Advice: plants for under trees
One of the best of all fragrant flowering shrubs, its rather upright habit is appreciated by owners of small gardens and its red buds opening to large white flowers create an impressive winter display among the usually evergreen foliage. Then there’s the fragrance, which can be almost intoxicating. Appreciates shelter in colder areas. 8ft (2.4m)
RHS Garden Harlow Carr’s February plant of the month
This attractive twiggy evergreen, with a blue tint to its neatly divided leaves, can be in flower at almost any time of the year but in late winter and into spring it’s often at its peak – especially if planted against a sunny wall. The clusters of rich yellow pea-flowers have a peachy daytime fragrance, but none at night. The paler form, ‘Citrina’, has also been awarded an AGM. 3ft (90cm)
The yellow flower clusters of Cornus mas have long been appreciated but ‘Golden Glory’ takes it to new heights. Making a small tree, or a large shrub, ‘Golden Glory’ is less spreading in its habit, more prolific in flower and also flowers as a younger plant. It also features red fruits, which are edible but acid, and reddish purple autumn foliage so has three distinct appeals. 15ft (4.5m)
Grow this plant trained against a sunny wall and it will reward you with yellow waxy flowers showing maroon streaks on the inner petals. The spicy fragrance is delicious and is stronger in the species than many of the showier cultivars. Be patient as it may not flower for a couple of years, but it is well worth the wait.