Last year, while living in Auckland for three months from July-September, I was astonished to notice that for my entire period in the city, several varieties of flowering shrubs and trees were in bloom: camellias, vireya rhododendrons, magnolias and flowering cherries captured my attention but there were also many others. And while winter was still officially the season, bulbs began piercing the ground and shortly after, their buds burst into colour: crocus and snow drops followed by jonuils, daffodils freesias and tulips.
In colder parts of the country, however, it is a different story, and many of us in both North and South islands are, at this time of year, desperately hunting around for a little colour to admire in the garden or bring indoors. During a particularly grim winter a few years back, I decided to full proof my garden against such times by investing in some winter flowering beauties to help me through the grey days of winter.
While we can, almost without exception, rely on hellebores, primroses and polyanthus to cheer us at this time of year, I think it’s so important to also have access to ‘big’ colour – whole branches of beauty that we can cut and pop into a vase while still leaving loads to admire in the garden. This is where flowering trees and shrubs come into their own.
At this time of year I daily watch for signs of my witch hazels coming into flower. I say ‘hazels’ plural because one is never enough. I want them close to the entrance of each door of the house and in every shade available from Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’ and ‘Arnold Promise’ to paler ‘Primavera’ and the rich bronze reds of ‘Jelena’ and ‘Red Cascade’. It takes an extraordinarily wet winter for these beauties not to perform in South Otago and they provide vases of scent throughout the house. Daphne bholua (the Nepalese paper plant) also does her scented duty without complaining about the cold but it is the viburnums that I lean on most for winter cheer.
Viburnums are so undemanding, always looking neat and tidy with least attention and, if you invest in Viburnums ‘Eve Price’ and ‘Gwenllian’, as I have, your reward will be delicately perfumed pink tinged buds throughout winter. Although viburnums are tolerant of just about any soil, they do best in a rich humus that I am only too happy to supply with a mix of well rotted animal manure and compost plus a thick mulch of fallen leaves at the end of autumn. (If you live in dry parts, you’ll need to keep the water up to these plants during summer.)
Along with Garrya elliptica (the silk tassel bush) with its lovely grey-green catkins and subtle yellow pollen, I am well set up for flowers throughout winter and if I do crave a bit of vivid pink or purple, I can call always call on a few pots of greenhouse-raised polyanthus from the garden centre. But all that aside, I do still have the tiniest bit of envy when I think back on my Auckland stay and wading through the masses of spring bulbs in Cornwall Park, happily blooming in what, in most other parts of the country, would still be regarded as the coldest months!