Winter Blooms

Winter Blooms

For the last few days I’ve had a surprise every time I step out the front door or return to the front door. An unexpected fragrance wafts up from somewhere, and I look around to see what it is. In fact the first day I smelled it–probably one week ago– it didn’t even register as a fragrance, just a different sensation. Really silly, since it came from my Sarcococca, which has occupied the same garden spot for 7 years. But every year the amazing fragrance catches me off-guard, which then becomes part of the delight.

Sarcococca confusa

Sarcococca confusa

It’s really easy to plan or amend a garden to entertain through the dreary cold, wet winter months. Think of the aspects to the garden that you like through the rest of the year, and then find winter tolerant providers– texture, colour, movement, smell (already mentioned).

Sarcococca confusa is the perfect little shrub for a shady spot. In this less-than-optimal raised bed (6’x 1’x 0.5′)  between the driveway and the front steps, it has a civilized habit, not too big, not too small, easily pruned, and always has enough extra branches to allow me to cut some to bring in. (I’m a little sensitive to smells, though, and last year had to put them out the back deck because the aroma was too strong for me.) Be sure to give it enough water; I originally planted two in that tiny border, and the one toward the back (don’t look for it, it’s long gone!) just didn’t thrive. It was a little too sheltered by the roof overhang.

Tiny little flowers, big impact!

Sarcococca confusa. Tiny flowers, big impact!

Helleborus niger or any of the other hellebore species provides great winter interest, especially when you have a few different ones. The ‘Jacob’ below is from the “Hellebore Gold Collection”, and unlike many varieties, the flowers face more upward. These started blooming long before Christmas, and will continue for at least a couple months.

Helleborus niger 'HCG Jacob Classic'

Helleborus niger ‘HCG Jacob Classic’. You can just see more blooms under some of the leaves, so I’ll be trimming those off–new leaf growth will start later in the spring.

Hellebore niger 'HCG Jacob Classic'

Hellebore niger ‘HCG Jacob Classic’–unfortunately a little winter mould on the blooms.



Helleborus nigercors ‘White Beauty’ (?). Leaves look pretty unsightly, and the blooms are cleverly concealed behind them. So now’s the time to cut them all away to expose the flower buds.


Helleborus x hybridus 'Ivory Prince'

Helleborus nigercors ‘White Beauty’

‘White Beauty’ will be the next to open, then other hellebores are later bloomers like this H x  hybridus ‘Spring Promise Elly’:

Helleborus x hybridus 'Spring Promise Elly'

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Spring Promise Elly’

Witchhazel (Hamamelis) is another potentially fragrant item–could be grown as a shrub or a small tree–that is easy to fit into most landscapes. I say potentially, because I don’t at all trust other people’s sense of smell, and beside, even the sources and resources have differing information. My H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’ is fragrant according to Missouri Botanical Garden, but Pacific Horticulture writes “lack of scent”. Mine unfortunately agrees with PH.

Hamamelis x intermidia 'Jelena'

Hamamelis x intermidia ‘Jelena’

But such cute spidery flowers, and lovely vase-shaped growth.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’. I love this current shape, and will not be doing any pruning this season. You can see the racoon damaged lawn in the background!

Be careful pruning the Witchhazel–it has a strong tendancy to send up suckers and water sprouts, so prune lightly. Once your hamamelis is established and can spare losing a few branches, you can cut some before the blooms open and bring them indoors to force.

Daphne odora starts to show colourful buds as early as Christmas, but they don’t open until much later. And then not only are the flowers cute but wonderfully fragrant as well. But for now, they just offer the hope of colour and frangrance.

Daphne odora 'aureomarginata'.

Daphne odora ‘aureomarginata’. Supposedly “semi-evergreen”, but holding on to two leaves does not, in my book, constitute even semi-evergreen.

Skimmia japonica. Can’t beat it for colour. And for some reason, the birds don’t eat the berries, so they persist a very long time. These have been”in berry” since probably mid Fall.

Skimmia japonica--male and female planted together. Both are needed to produce ber

Skimmia japonica–male and female planted together. Both are needed to produce berries.

Skimmia japonice 'rubella'

Skimmia japonica ‘rubella’

Skimmia ‘rubella’ doesn’t berry because it’s male, and I guess there isn’t a female version. Not knowing that it was male, I planted it in front of the larger variety assuming the first would pollinate the second. I guess not…

Buds will open in late winter, so after the Sarcococca is finished, and before the Daphne opens, the Skimmia, also right by the house entrance, will waft its fragrance up to the front door.

Viburnum tinus ‘Spring bouquet’. Another lightly fragrant winter bloomer, this slow-growing evergreen carries a halo of buds from late Fall, and is just now beginning to open them up.

Viburnum tinus 'Spring Bouquet' with hellebores underneath.

Viburnum tinus ‘Spring Bouquet’ with hellebores underneath.

V. tinus 'Spring Bpuquet'

V. tinus ‘Spring Bouquet’

This is also labelled "Spring Bouquet', and is likely to be correctly labelled, but they surely can't both be the same variety, since this one is much redder in bud, and

This is also labelled “Spring Bouquet’, and is likely to be correctly labelled, having the Monrovia label on it, but they surely can’t both be the same variety, since this one is much redder in bud, and slow, slow, slower growing.

Edgeworthia crysantha. I’d love to show you beautiful pictures of my new Edgeworthia, but unfortunately it’s far from beautiful, still just a stick with a few tassels hanging from it.

Edgeworthia crysantha

Edgeworthia crysantha

The spring flowering deciduous shrub sets its silvery buds late summer,

Edgeworthia crysantha buds in September

Edgeworthia crysantha buds in September

then in Fall, loses its leaves leaving these cute little buds.

Edgeworthia crysantha buds January

Edgeworthia crysantha buds January

Hopefully in future years it will look more like this in January:

Edgeworthia chrysantha, image thanks to Davis Landscape Architect's Pages

Edgeworthia chrysantha, image thanks to Davis Landscape Architect’s Pages


You may be interested in these related articles:

The Winter Garden, 5 Winter Questions, 5 Herbs That Thrive in Winter 

Garden Thugs: Daphne laureola

Daphne Laureola

A couple years ago I was walking over to a friend’s house when I was arrested by the fragrance coming from a lovely compact shrub along the sidewalk. It took me a while to discover that it was Daphne laureola (Spurge Laurel)–which didn’t surprise me, because my experience with Daphne so far is that they are delightfully fragrant! I have a Daphne odora ‘Marginata’, and my neighbour has (I think) Daphne x tansatlantica ‘Summer Ice’.

Shiny, evergreen D. laureola amidst winter blooming Heather.  You can just see flower buds starting under the top-most layer of leaves.

Shiny, evergreen D. laureola amidst winter blooming Heather. You can just see flower buds starting under the top-most layer of leaves. Click on picture to enlarge.

The unfortunate thing about all Daphnes is that all parts of them are toxic to humans when ingested, and sap can cause reactions on the skin. Now, that’s bad enough with the hybrid versions of Daphne, but with Daphne laureola, a species native to Europe, it carries more problems. First of all (unlike the hybrids) it’s tolerant of almost all soils–although it’s native soil is alkaline, it’s doing just fine in our acidic local soil, and especially in wooded areas of the Douglas-fir and Garry Oak ecosystems. (See this article on the Vancouver Master Gardener website.) It also (unlike the hybrids) produces berries, toxic to humans and small animals, but not to birds. So the birds eat the berries and deposit the seeds wherever they fly, spreading Daphne laureola far beyond where it was planted.

It is undeniably a pretty shrub, but it has too many disadvantages to justify planting it in your garden. Alternatives that meet the same cultural needs include Skimmia, Sarcococca,  Pieris, small Rhododendrons and Azaleas (although the last two aren’t fragrant), and even the beautiful Daphne odora and Daphne x transatlantica.

Photo Credit Great Plant Picks

Photo Credit Great Plant Picks

Would you consider removing your Daphne laureloa?

Planning Your Wildlife Garden (cont’d.)

Last month I covered the basics of planning your wildlife garden: Water. Food. Shelter. Don’t use pesticides. Do plant some natives ( is a great resource)–here’s a short list of natives for various garden sites. Include a wide variety of plants–flowers, deciduous and evergreen shrubs, ornamental grasses, but enough of all to actually make a statement. After all, this is about DESIGN. And not too many highly hybridized cultivars which will have very little pollen.

Bees, Butterflies, Beneficials

I’ve lumped these together because they’ll require similar conditions.

Food throughout the year

Bees and beneficial insects have an affinity for small flowered, fragrant blossoms (not exclusively) which individually don’t have much pollen, but because they are usually grouped together, constitute a treasure trove. Think of alyssum, heather, california lilac, asters (each aster “flower” is in fact many flowers squashed together). I have an abundance of alyssum, having allowed it to go to seed one year and now it returns every year. Since I mulched all my beds last fall (one of the functions of mulch is to prevent weed seeds from gaining access to the soil where they’ll germinate) I wonder if I’ll get any alyssum this year.

Most of our bees will be inactive through the late fall-to-mid-winter time, but having plants that flower in late winter will serve the many species that get an early start in the year. Skimmia, Sarcococca (sweet box), and Hamemelis (Witch Hazel), and Hellebore (Christmas or Lenten Rose) are all winter bloomers that will serve those early bees a tasty breakfast of pollen and nectar.

What about bee stings?

According to Feed The Bees (please follow the link–a local partnership between Earthwise and Delta Chamber of Commerce), the vast majority of our native bees are solitary, non-social bees, having no hives and therefore nothing to aggressively protect. They’re unlikely to sting unless grabbed or stepped upon.

If you want butterflies you’ll have to welcome the caterpillars and their voracious appetites. Butterflies are happy to drink the nectar from the same flowers as the bees, but they will want “host plants” to lay their eggs, and without egg-laying, butterflies won’t linger. The host plants are all dependent on which butterfly species, but the bottom line is that they are the sacrifice plant for the butterfly–the eggs turn into larvae, which you may remember is the caterpillar–aka hungry–stage of the butterfly.  No problem, locate them in an area where the eaten leaves won’t show up too much. And make sure if you’re growing food crops (in this case all the brassicas–cabbage, broccoli, brussels etc.) you cover them with row covers through the larvae weeks of May to July or even later. Incidentally, if you’re inviting birds into your haven, they’ll often help you keep the caterpillar population down to a manageable number.

DSCN3342 2

Who-knows-what-species enjoying my candytuft (Iberis umbellata). Of which I have an abundance!

Soil and Mud

As you know, I’m a mulch-addict. I love how it protects the soil, adds diversity to the soil organisms, and minimizes weeds. But many of our BBB’s want some open exposed soil for nesting. Most of our bees are little tunnel diggers and need to be able to see a dry-ish patch of soil in order to make their nests there. Beneficials also need someplace to nest, and that’s often in leaf litter or a bit of dried grass left in the garden. So find a little patch in the sun and leave it a bit more “au naturel”.

Those that aren’t tunnel builders like hollow stems or tubes–in many cases man-made are perfectly acceptable–or holes in dead branches or stumps. So again, completely cleaning up your property isn’t necessarily as hospitable as cleaning up your house. These bees and insects will welcome a muddy patch– the edge of a pond or the overflow from a rain barrel will do the trick–using the mud for their nests. I have a garbage can lid carefully positioned so it catches some roof run-off; a nice shallow bird bath that stays a little muddy around it.

So there you go: food, shelter, water. Just what your BBB’s are asking for. And you’re started on your wildlife garden.

Stay tuned for more, when I’ll cover small ponds.

As always, I welcome comments, questions, more wisdom than I have…

Fragrance in the Garden

I’m sitting here in the living room doing some computer work, and intermittently something distracts me. I’ve just realized it’s fragrance!

I went outside an hour ago just to get some air, and was drawn into the garden by the scent of the Daphne odora, across from the front steps. Beside the front steps is Skimmia japonica, and it was actually the Skimmia that attracted me. So I cut off a few stems and put them in a vase here a few feet away from where I’m working. And carried on working.

Every few minutes I’d raise my head–obviously distracted by something, but not really thinking of it–then go back to work. Until I realized I was subconsciously noticing the beautiful scent of the Skimmia.


Just a few branches cut from Skimmia leaving the shrub looking untouched.

What and Where to Plant

You can’t overestimate the value of fragrance in either the garden or the house. (Admittedly, you have to be careful about fragrance in the house. Hyacinths out in the flower border will be delightful; in the house might make your eyes weep!)

The key to fragrance in the garden is to plant your sweet-smelling flowers and shrubs where they will be brushed against, or otherwise appreciated close enough to actually smell them.

For example, if you plant creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum , not Thymus vulgaris, which despite the vulgar name is actually the eating variety) you really want it to be underfoot. Walking on it (perfectly tolerant of walking on, but maybe not playing soccer on) will release those delicious aromatic oils. Do be careful of the bees that also love it…


Plants and Stones blog–click to link

I have Sarcococca confusa on the other side of the front steps, and as I come in from the car, I brush past it. Sarcococca (or Sweetbox) blooms in January, and the surprise of the garden giving such extravagance in the middle of winter makes it one of the more valuable shrubs around. And perfect for coastal BC, where it’s shade loving, evergreen, and pretty much maintenance-free.


Fragrant Sweet Box by my front door. I brush by it on the way to and from the car.


It’s difficult to tell from the picture, but the flowers are almost invisible, yet they deliver disproportional sweet scent.

How have you incorporated fragrance in your garden? How would you like to incorporate fragrance in your garden? Leave a comment…