Winter miracles happening in your garden

By Andrew Collyer - Practical Gardening

Published 23/01/2016 | 00:00

Andrew Collyer.
Andrew Collyer.

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Pittosporum 'Irene Patterson'

I am always amazed at plants that flower in the deepest dark of winter, you would imagine anything would be preferable to that. But ever since I was a young under gardener I have learned to be very appreciative that some do. Three plants that I came into contact with in my first job all stood out as remarkable to me for that very reason and are still amongst my favourites today.

Helleborus niger or Christmas rose was one of the first plant names I learnt. I had every reason to remember it as one cold frosty morning it was shouting out from an otherwise dead looking herbaceous border to herald its arrival. It's beautiful saucer shaped white flowers shone in the early morning winter sunshine. On closer inspection I was stunned at how delicate this flower was to be blooming at that time of year, and as it was a good sized clumb it continued to flower intermittently over the next couple of months.

The Christmas rose has a little folklore story attached to it as well which adds to its charm I think. It goes that a shepherdess met the wisemen on their way with gifts for the baby Jesus and realising she had nothing to give, not even a flower, began to cry. Her tears fell upon the snow at her feet and what should spring through the white surface but a beautiful bloom of Helleborus niger. A lovely story for a lovely plant.

In our world today Helleborus niger is a low evergreen perennial plant that loves good deep soil with some shade in the afternoon. It may go unnoticed for much of the year but in winter when it opens it's three inch white sometimes tinged pink flowers it will grab your attention.

If I had thought the Christmas rose was delicate for winter flowering Iris unuicularis or the Algerian iris was even more of a surprise. I encountered this plant for the first time in the same garden. It was in a long row at the footing of an old sunny brick wall and was growing out of a gravel path. The row must have been some thirty feet in length and until then had looked like just a tangle of rough grassy foliage of little interest. This was transformed however after a couple of warmer sunny days when seemingly overnight it threw up a multitude of blue flushed yellow and white flushed flowers. The blooms are typical in iris shape but as fragile as any flower, iris or not, that you are likely to have the pleasure of seeing.

These flowers are short lived, particularly if there is a frost the night following their opening, but these are replaced by many more over winter. Iris unguicularis is native to shaley mountainous soils of Greece and Turkey but is quite hardy here. Give it a sunny spot in soil that is not too rich. It has grassy evergreen foliage that can look a little disheveled in the summer so cut it back to the ground after flowering.

The other plant in my winter trinity I smelt before I saw it. In fact even when I located it it wasn't particularly visually showy but had a subtle charm all the same and I love it to this day. Sarcococca or Christmas box looks a more suitable candidate for winter flowering as it is a tough looking small evergreen shrub. As it's common name suggests it resembles the common box Buxus sempervirens in foliage to the untrained eye but is really quite distinct on inspection.

There seems to be a little confusion over the labeling of Sarcococca. I have for years suggested Sarocococca humilis for gardens but have seen the same plant labelled Sarcococca confusa [appropriately]. `Botanically there is a difference but both look very similar, both like shade have fragrant spidery white flowers and black berries. S. confusa gets slightly taller at four feet. So that's all clear then.

Wexford People

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