www.planthistory.uk
Winter
... dark days?

I can remember the surprise I felt when for the first time I was introduced to a winter flowering shrub whose flowers were perfumed as well!  It must have been in the 1960’s that I first grew the Oregon Grape Mahonia aquifolium. I learned it was an American native and originally discovered by David Douglas in 1823. It seemed like a small miracle that one could have flowers AND perfume in the garden during the dark dank days of the year.
Since then I have always looked out for these hardy plants that flaunt themselves during the winter months and over the years have enjoyed the pleasure of their company. Almost the best is the Winter-flowering honeysuckle Lonicera purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’. It was named for the brothers Carl & Joseph Purpus of Germany who were plant collectors in Central America, during the latter part of the 19th and the early 20th century. The shrub is a sturdy cross between L. fragantissima x L. standishii with most delightfully intricate cream-coloured flowers. Bringing the buds indoors to flower is an added bonus and a reminder that spring and summer are hopefully on their way.
‘Christmas Box’ or ‘Sweet Box’ says it all – Sarcococca is the genus name and all fourteen species are native of China through to the Himalayas and S.E. Asia, all are fragrant except Sarcococca saligna which was the first to arrive on these shores in 1820. Nearly eighty years later (1901) Ernest Wilson the eminent plant collector sent a plant to the Veitch Nursery that had earlier been discovered and described by Dr Augustine Henry. It was the fragrant flowered S. ruscifolia. Other species followed in the next few years and it is now a firm favourite at Christmas.
Something quite different and a plant I am looking forward to welcoming into our garden here in Chichester is the winter-flowering iris Iris unguicularis. I have just the spot, against a tall south facing old brick wall, the variety I think I will choose is named after Walter Butt , who in 1936 sold his house in Porlock to the distinguished plantsman and writer Edward Anderson who was not only a founder member of the RHS Joint Rock Garden Plant Committee but went on to name the strongly fragrant and large flowered iris after the previous owner I. unguicularis ‘Walter Butt’ . Anderson wrote a book entitled ‘Gardening on Chalk and Lime’ and for those of us who garden in chalky Sussex a most useful title to have in one’s library.
Anticipation should be a characteristic that all gardeners display - there is always something new to notice in our gardens however dark the dark winter days are. Counting the flowers in bloom on Christmas or New Years day is a most pleasurable task or searching for the very first sign of the snowdrops emerging (3 in bloom today 30th December) plus the perky crocus stepping forth confidently, oblivious of the weather, intent on bursting into glorious golden bloom just as soon as possible. All this powerhouse of vitality helps us to understand that spring really is already underway.