Six on Saturday: Winter Flowers

Edgeworthia chrysantha in late March 2019

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Here in coastal Virginia, it is possible to have flowers blooming in the garden every day of the year.  It takes a bit of planning and preparation now, before winter settles around us.  But it is within reach for most of us with a little outdoor space to plant.

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Planning a garden is a lot like working a very large jigsaw puzzle.  Consider one of the 1200 piece puzzles you buy to work with family or close friends, where you spend hours and hours just sorting pieces and making the frame before ever beginning to fill in the body of the puzzle.  Maybe you work in small sections, completing a bit here and there, then fitting those vignettes into their proper place in the whole at the right time.

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Planning for winter color, and more specifically for winter flowers, is just one of those chunks to fit into the bigger picture.

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Hellebores blooming in mid-February

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As you begin to think about winter flowers, it is helpful to think about winter blooming shrubs, winter blooming geophytes, winter blooming perennials, and finally winter blooming ‘annuals.’  Each have their own niche in the whole picture, and their own level of expense and commitment.

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This weekend I’ve visited three garden centers and have been delighted to find plants on my own ‘winter wish list’ at all three.  In all cases, the plants I wanted were marked down on clearance.  Even looking a bit rough and scraggly, giving them the right care now guarantees flowers in a few months, when we’ll need them.

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Violas of all sorts our still widely available in our area and still sold at full price at most locations.  There are hundreds of varieties, and the hardest part about planting Violas is deciding which ones to grow.  Deadhead to keep the flowers coming.  Use Osmacote or another time-release fertilizer at planting time, and feed them again with a liquid feed in February or March for best bloom.  Cut them back with scissors to remove bad foliage or leggy stems, and they will reward you with lush growth until summer.

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This is the easiest, least expensive way to enjoy winter flowers, and carries the least commitment.  Violas thrive here until sometime in May, when it gets too hot for them.  I’m usually pulling them out of their spots by mid-May to replant for summer, anyway.  Gardeners in cooler climates can keep them going year to year, but here we treat them like annuals.  Pansies have the largest, brightest flowers.  There are both singles and doubles in a wide variety of colors and color combinations.

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Panolas are a nice compromise between Pansies and the tiny Violas like ‘Johnny Jump-Ups.’  Again, there is a variety of color combinations available, solid flowers, and both single and double blossoms.  Little Violas have flowers about the size of a penny or a nickle, but they are very sweet and saturated color.  Although the plants look tiny now, they grow and spread throughout the winter.  By spring, when they begin to bloom again in earnest, they are covered in many, many small, but bright flowers.  We have a grower near us who specializes in little Violas, and I always end up with a flat or two and put them in pots and baskets on our patio and deck.

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Since deer find these little guys very tasty (most of the flowers are edible for humans, too) I generally don’t plant out Violas in beds or borders.  But I have, and as long as they are kept sprayed with animal repellent, they grow beautifully.

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Hardy Cyclamen leaves with blue Vinca flowers and emerging Crocus in February.

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A notch up from the Violas are Snapdragons, Antirrhinum species.  These are perennials, though many people pull them out and replace them by mid-spring.  I have several plants still going strong planted more than a year ago.  They are short-lived perennials, but will bloom profusely well into early summer, and then sporadically during our hot season.  The secret to keeping these covered in flowers is to dead-head the spent blooms before they set seeds, keep them moist, and feed the plants every month or so to keep them healthy and productive.  Give snaps some shade in the summer, but they are happy in full sun through the winter months.  You will find Antirrhinum varieties in small, medium or tall plants, and in a range of beautiful colors from bold to soft pastels.

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An equally easy, but often overlooked winter blooming perennial is Dianthus chinensis.  Often sold in cell packs in early spring, Dianthus is a tough, dependable easy perennial in our area that isn’t ever grazed.  It blooms sporadically in winter and summer, but really shines in spring and fall on evergreen plants.   I often use it in potted arrangements because it is versatile, bright, and the flowers remain the size of quarters in shades of white, pink, purple or crimson.  Flowers may be solid or bi-color.  Cuttings root easily.  Deadhead this plant regularly to keep it looking neat, and to keep the flowers coming.

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Requiring a bit more time and commitment are the Hellebores.  I had never paid Hellebores any attention until I moved to Williamsburg, but they are very popular here.  Probably because they are very poisonous, and won’t be bothered by deer, rabbits, squirrels, moles, voles, or ground-hogs.  It take about three to four years from seedling to blooming plant, but blooming plants are readily available in gallon pots at our garden centers, for around $25.00 each.

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Preferring shade, some of my plants grow in full to partial sun and do fine, as long as I water them during dry spells.  Hellebores begin blooming between December and February, depending on the species and variety, and them bloom continuously for another 3 to 4 months.  They are evergreen, serve as background foliage during the warm months, and are very tough and easy plants to grow.

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I was given a few dozen seedling plants by a neighbor years ago, and they continue to bloom each year and multiply, naturally spreading to form a dense ground cover.  I also buy one or two new varieties each year.  I grow them in pots and in the ground, and delight in their beautiful flowers through the winter months when little else blooms.

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Violas and ivy make fora beautiful winter hanging basket in our climate. This photo from early January 2017.

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When most people think of winter flowers, they think about winter blooming bulbs.  Bulbs are easy and most are inexpensive.  This is prime time to find bulb sales from online dealers, who can be very good, and also to find reduced bags of bulbs at garden centers.

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Be wary, if buying bulbs locally, that the bulbs still look plump and healthy and have no discoloration.  If they look shriveled or have anything grey or green on them, pass them by.  They probably won’t bloom well, or they may not grow at all and infect your soil with bacterial rot.

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Snowdrops, Galanthus species, bloom in January or February most years.  Although they are very small and white or white and green, by the time they bloom, they are a welcome sign of spring.  Miniature Iris bloom from bulbs at just about the same time, but come in a broader range of colors with larger flowers.  Early daffodils begin to bloom most years in February, and Crocus can bloom very early, before there is much else color in the garden.  Muscari also bloom in very early spring.  All of these are called geophytes because they are bulbs, and can be stored dry during their dormant time each year.

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Other geophytes, or ‘Earth plants’ grow from corms, tubers, or rhizomes.   Some hardy Cyclamen tubers begin to bloom in autumn and bloom until early winter.  Their beautifully patterned leaves persist much longer than their delicate flowers in pinks or white.  Other Cyclamen species begin to bloom in the middle of winter, and bloom through mid-spring.  Buy tubers based on when they bloom, the color of their flowers or the color and pattern of their leaves.  Cyclamen may be grown from seeds, but it takes several years for their tubers to grow large enough to bloom.  Leave the tuber in place and it will keep growing larger, giving a wider area of bloom each year.

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Iris reticulata ‘Sunshine’ on March 2, 2019.

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Finally, shrubs can be a great source of winter flowers.  If you live in Zone 7 or warmer, you can grow Camellias.  Some Camellia varieties are hardier than others, and you may find species to grow in Zone 6 or cooler.  We grow both fall blooming and spring blooming Camellias, so we have them from October through until April, whenever the weather has a bit of a warm enough stretch to allow buds to bloom.

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Daphne can bloom very early, but is also a very difficult shrub to keep happy.  I’ve never had one for very long.

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Our favorite winter bloomer is Edgeworthia chrysantha, or Chinese paperbush.  It is already in bud, and those flower buds keep steadily swelling and growing larger until they finally open into blossoms. There are two or three different varieties, and flowers may be white with yellow centers, or all yellow. They have a very sweet and strong fragrance, so the garden is perfumed on warmish days.

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Now, if you want to grow this gorgeous shrub, you will make a bit of an investment.  I saw one today in a 3 gal. pot for nearly $80.  Shop around, and you will likely find a much better deal.  One of our local nurseries carries them at a more reasonable price, but they never order very many.  You have to seek this one out.

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A shining star through the winter months, the shrub is rather non-descript with medium green, deciduous leaved through the summer.  The leaves turn yellow in fall, as the flowers appear on the branches.  It is a very sculptural shrub once the leaves fall, and is a real focal point.

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Mahonia, a northwest native shrub, blooms in November- January.   Japanese Pieris will also begin to bloom as winter fades into spring.  Both of these shrubs have evergreen foliage and bees and other small pollinators love them.   They support native bees when there is little else available for forage.

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Native redbud trees, Cercis Canadensis, sprout tiny flowers that break out of their bark along twigs, limbs and sometimes even the trunk!  I’ve seen them bloom here as early as mid-February, when they cover themselves in a cloud of deep magenta pink.  Some of the cultivars available now offer other color choices, but most are shades of pink/purple/red and even white.  Each tree hosts hundreds (thousands on a mature tree) of tiny flowers to the delight of every hungry pollinator in the area.  Birds follow to feed on the insects, and so redbud trees become hubs of activity when in bloom.

Heart shaped leaves follow, which turn beautiful yellow in fall.  Seed pods look like snow peas, and are edible.  Our trees are covered in seed pods, still, and they feed a variety of wildlife in winter.  Cut branches may be forced inside in early spring, in a vase of water.  Designers may also cut branches covered in seed pods now to add drama to their arrangements.

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Some Magnolia trees, like Magnolia stellata and Magnolia lilliflora may break into bloom in February.  Deciduous Magnolia trees bloom earlier than the evergreens and generally stay much smaller.  These are easy to grow in sun to part shade, and come in a variety of flower forms and colors.

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Finally, Forsythia shrubs often begin blooming for us in February with golden yellow flowers.  They are one of the earliest blooming shrubs in late winter.  You can force branches to bloom indoors several weeks earlier than they bloom outside.   And Japanese quince blooms in bright scarlet or pink soon after.

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These are just the high points of winter blooming plants that we grow, and that easily come to mind.  You may have other favorites.  We have to consider climate, available sun or shade, and what will or won’t be grazed by the animals who visit our garden.

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Many gardeners are quite happy with evergreens, a few bright berries, and maybe some variegated ivy or a variegated shrub.  We all crave a bit of color in the winter time, and it is worth planning for and making a bit of an investment to keep the garden interesting during the darkest months of the year.

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February 2017 Magnolia stellata

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Woodland Gnome 2020

Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

13 responses to “Six on Saturday: Winter Flowers

  1. Star magnolias are enviable. They look so happy in pictures from other regions. When we grew magnolias on the farm, there were only a few star magnolias, perhaps only three cultivars. They were not popular, probably because they were not very impressive. There is one in the landscapes at work now, but it has never gotten established. It is no bigger now than it was when I put it there.

    • Hi Tony,

      Have you checked the soil’s PH around that little M. stellata? Most Magnolias prefer slightly acidic soil, which you may be able to easily correct and then mulch with pine tags. But they also want a few weeks of winter. The one I had growing well for several years died quite suddenly this spring. My only clue as to what happened is possibly root damage from voles. Otherwise, a mystery. I enjoyed it so much that I am hoping to replace it. Hope you and your family are all well, WG

      • Ph is an interesting topic here. The soil alone should be slightly alkaline, but is instead slightly acidic wherever the redwoods are. Hydrangeas are blue in most situations, but can turn pink right nearby. I suspect that the soil is slightly alkaline where the star magnolia is. I could try to acidify it at the end of winter. (We actually prefer blue hydrangeas in some of the spots where they would otherwise be pink.)

        • Fascinating. An acidic mulch may do the trick without much other intervention on your part. A few shovels of compost spread thinly under the mulch may be all the boost it needs to thrive.

          • It has worked with other plants. Gunnera and hellebores appreciate it. I just would not have considered doing it for a star magnolia. Thank you.

            • Please let me know if it makes a difference, Tony. Those star Magnolias are so stunning in late winter, I hate to hear of one not happily blooming and growing into its potential. Take care, WG

              • Even if it does work, I may not notice a difference for a few years. Even the healthiest star magnolias are not vigorous here. As much as I like the bloom, I would not have selected a star magnolia for this situation. We put it there because it needed to be removed from somewhere else. I could not bear to discard it, especially since it might have been a memorial tree years ago. (I still can’t believe we moved what might have been a memorial tree!) I intend to make it happier and bloom, but I do not expect it to thrive like it would in other regions.

  2. Nice post– very informative, well-written, and inspiring, too!

    • Thanks very much, Eliza. That means a lot, coming from you! Are any of these reasonable options for Massachusetts gardeners? I realize how blessed we are to have this climate. Our 2 frosts this year both came after Nov. 15, and our next may be tomorrow night… but not a hard frost, yet.
      Enjoy the day! ❤ ❤ ❤

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