Written by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener
There has been some discussion about the fact that our mild winter has prodded a number of plants to bloom earlier than usual. However, some of the flowers that you see may actually be winter bloomers and it is not at all unusual for these plants to show off their blossoms this time of year. A tour of Alexandria’s Simpson Gardens provides some examples.
Start at the corner by the YMCA parking lot where Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ has been in flower since early to mid-January. One of the earliest bloomers, these hardy 1’ to 2’ tall yellow trumpet daffodils also boast a long bloom period. They grow well in sun to part shade in beds, borders or containers and will bring a little “sunshine” to a dreary winter day. Stroll past the daffodils (pictured left) and the scented garden immediately to the right of the sidewalk that parallels the YMCA parking lot.
When you reach the Eucalyptus tree, your nose should lead you to the deliciously fragrant blossoms of Lonicera fragrantissima (winter honeysuckle -pictured right) on your left. This 6’ to 10’ tall semi-evergreen shrub grows in sun or part shade and is a good screening plant. From far away its small white blooms do not impress, but up close they are a treat for eyes and nose alike. Be careful as you smell the flowers though because the honey bees like them too. As its other common name suggests, it is truly sweet-breath-of-spring.
Saunter down the sidewalk and just before the playground, on your right, is a 3’ to 4’ tall shrub covered in maroon buds and 2” pale yellow blooms. Some people mistake this for Forsythia but it is actually Jasminum nudiflorum (winter jasmine – pictured above). The flowers, which appear on bare arching branches, open earlier than Forsythia and last longer.
Continue your journey past a flower-covered crossbreed of Lonicera on your left. At the corner of the parking lot, you will find the twisted branches that distinguish Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (Harry Lauder’s walking stick – pictured above right). The catkins hanging from the branches of this 8’ to 10’ tall deciduous shrub are not yet “blooming,” but this is the time of year when the shrub’s contorted form can be best appreciated. Its branches also stand out in dried or cut flower arrangements. It grows best in sun to part shade as a specimen tree where it can be admired in winter. Growing under this tree you will find winter-blooming yellow flowers that somewhat resemble buttercups. These adaptable Eranthis (winter aconite – pictured above left) grow well in sun to full shade and will naturalize over time.
Now walk up the incline to the parking lot and cross to the opposite corner. There you will find Prunus mume (Japanese flowering apricot a.k.a. Japanese flowering plum – pictured right) in full bloom. When other deciduous trees are bare in winter, this 12’ to 20’ tall tree is clothed in small, fragrant pink flowers. This welcome addition to the winter landscape grows well in full sun and makes a good screen or buffer plant.
On your way back to Simpson Gardens, look at the trees along the back side of the YMCA building. There you will find another good screening plant, Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet – pictured left) beginning to bloom. Like its common name, its winter flowers produce a sweet scent and its cut branches will let you enjoy their fragrance indoors as well. This 10’ to 15’ tall deciduous shrub grows in sun to part shade but requires good drainage.
So the next time you see a plant blooming in winter, you may wonder if it results from mild weather or if its flowers are in season after all.