THANKS TO OUR TEMPERATE climate, winter gardens don’t have to be an empty stage waiting for spring’s array of colorful actors. Instead they can offer a beautiful show filled with texture, tantalizing scents, colorful blooms, and a few stars of their own.
Every great production needs a strong backdrop, and few plants shine in the winter like mahonias. Garden designer Loralee Wenger incorporates the tall, architectural evergreen shrubs into her landscapes for their fall and winter blooms of sunny yellow flowers. “I love the texture of their leaves, and the blossoms are fabulous, especially on ‘Arthur Menzies’ and ‘Charity’,” she says. Some varieties produce dark, grapelike berries that cascade down from new growth for added visual interest. The solid green of California wax myrtle (Morella californica) offers a more uniform effect. The trees grow up to 15 feet high and provide a consistent backdrop for winter-blooming plants. “Foliage in winter is so important,” Wenger says, “I hate seeing just sticks and twigs.”
For bold color add the long, soft reddish-purple catkins of the hazel Corylus maxima ‘Purpurea’. They portend the plant’s purple summer leaves but are reason enough to seek out this showy shrub. Pair it with the blooms of the deciduous shrub magpie (Stachyurus praecox), whose long clusters of yellow flowers dangle like ringlets from its branches and work well with the purple hues of ‘Purpurea’.
Though deciduous trees are dormant, their skeletal trunks offer dramatic texture and color during the winter months. The cinnamon curls on a paperbark maple (Acer griseum) trunk or the pearly orange-pink hues of the Chinese birch (Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis ) provide a striking contrast to evergreen backdrops and give a garden architectural interest and depth.
Frozen dirt, on the other hand, adds neither, so consider a bright green carpet of hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen coum). It is the perfect miniature of a florist’s cyclamen: heart-shaped leaves with pewter patterning and white, pink, or red flowers. This diminutive specimen stands only three inches high and dies back in June, waiting for the first cool kisses of fall before it reawakens.
Include a few well-chosen plants to add a fragrant bouquet to your winter garden. Indoors these plants can overpower with their potent blooms, but in the garden the scents mingle and come and go on the breeze. The small, white flowers of sweet box ( Sarcococca ) release a powerfully sweet scent, even outdoors. “It can be a little overbearing—it reminds you of being in a Baptist church at times,” says David Zuckerman, grounds supervisor for the Washington Park Arboretum. By contrast the small yellow or orange blossoms of witch hazel ( Hamamelis ) release a heavy spicy-sweet perfume that swirls about on the chilly air. The flowers resemble a cluster of streamers, adding color and visual appeal to their aroma.
With your stage all set, cross your fingers and hope your leading man makes an appearance. Seattle winters are home to the bustling Anna’s hummingbird. The male of the species sports a ruby-red cap (the only hummingbird species that does in Western Washington), and the birds nest as early as mid-December up and down the West Coast. The mahonias and witch hazel will appeal to your new feathered friends, making them frequent visitors to your winter paradise. It’s almost enough to make you wish for next January come July.