News reports say that the Scottish borders, and so my garden there, are under deep snow – well, what is considered deep in the UK. When I eventually get to reach it, amidst the thaw there will be flowers. Here’s what should be there…
When I left, there were already some flowers on:
Iris unguicularis (often still sold as I. stylosa). The untidy clumps of leathery leaves are studded with its scented blue flowers – these are delicate and easily weather beaten: I take some indoors if snow, heavy rain or frost is forecast. Pull the flowers, so that you get the long floral tube as well as the more obvious flower, and they’ll last several days,so you have plenty time and comfort to enjoy their utter perfection. The first to flower for me is the palest lilac species, though also a delight, if later, is the almost white form ‘Walter Butt’ and the deep violet ‘Mary Barnard’. All make big clumps 30cm x 1m, and simply take shears to the leaves if the whole thing gets a mess. It divides easily. Good for: planting in borders against a good sunny wall. Hardy.
My usual standby when I need something for the kitchen table while snow lies thick is Viburnum farreri (often to be found as V. fragrans). It will have been flowering abundantly since October and goes on into May, discouraged only by the very coldest of nights. It’s a vigorous and easy grower, so coppice a third or so of a big bush every second season. There are various garden hybrids: V. x bodnantense has pinker flowers, while the desirable ‘Candidissimum’ is purest white. Cut the flowering twigs to bring the sweet almond scent indoors. In its native China, rarely for me, it produces intense blue berries, though the birds take them before the mature. Humans can eat them too. Height and spread: 4m x 3.0m
Good for: sun or light shade, any soil, the smell is powerful, so any part of the garden.
I used to grow, and now pine for, Lonicera fragrantissima, a vigorous shrubby honeysuckle, when in late winter, each twig sports a cluster of a few cream flowers a centimetre or so top to bottom. Not showy, they have a perfume somewhere between lilac and jasmine,and one which will wind itself around the garden. In bitter weather it’s leafless; in mild areas, it is semi-evergreen. Indoors, twigs flower for a week or two, and then root happily in water. The hybrid L. x purpusii is similar, perhaps a better bet for more flowers. Good for: light screening or hedges, will take some shade, hardy.
When I left, and I hope when I get back, Hamamelis. x intermedia ‘pallida’ was looking gorgeous, liking the grey damp autumn. In spite of all the handsome new hybrids appearing, some with breathtaking orange-bronze flowers, I still think this is the best of the witch hazels. The yellow sings loud in a misty garden, and most plants have a sensational perfume too. Buy your plant from a garden centre rather than mail order and give the plant a sniff first; some plants have its trademark pale yellow ribbon-flowers, but don’t smell.
However, for me, the most sensational perfume of all comes from the most modest of flowers. They belong to the sweet box (various species and hybrids of Sarcococca). IF you don’t already know them, imagine a box plant with pointed leaves, and you have it. Add, in deep winter, tiny clusters of pinkish stamens rather than showy flowers, and there you have it. Some species are less hardy than others; Sarcococca hookeriana and its forms are hardiest, vigorous growers making glossy bushes a metre or more high, can be hedged, though thin with secateurs, rather than crop with shears. It does in sun or fairly heavy shade, and doesn’t seem fussy about soil (though don’t like commercial peat-based compost), but is not solidly hardy in serious northern cold. I have some in pots to take into the garden room, where the perfume is a great delight.
In the garden room too is something else that probably would survive outdoors, but I don’t risk – a parma violet. It isn’t named, but is probably ‘Duchesse de Parme’. The origin of the group is unclear, but they are probably hybrids between the truly hardy sweet violet (Viola odorata), and some unknown, but less tough, species. The parmas are good indoors at this season, flowering happily with a bit of warmth. But even out of flower, they’re fun, for whatever wonderful substance it is that makes the flowers smell so good, must also permeate the leaves. These, especially if mauled by frozen nights, give up their own scent, which is what reminded me to bring the pot indoors.
If it’s hard to shift most of us from the comfort of the sofa to the chilly reaches of the garden in winter, especially if its one of those pale afternoons when the frost hasn’t lifted, the exquisite perfume of ‘icing’ flowers will draw you outside, lift your spirits and make you forget, if for a moment, the crackling fire and the last slice of cake in the tin.