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Winter Blooming Shrubs

Gardeners choose plants on a whim, or because they admired a neighbor’s plant, or a newsletter they received alerted them to a new idea in grouping familiar, and rare, plants. We hope to entice you with our favorite list of winter blooming shrubs.

plant The Callicarpa americana, which is known more familiarly as the Beautyberry (Callicarpa means beauty berry) was used by Native American tribes for various medicinal purposes. The roots, leaves and branches were boiled down and used in sweat baths to treat malarial fevers, rheumatism, dizziness and stomachaches. The roots and berries were boiled and drunk to treat colic, and the bark from the stems and roots was used to treat itchy skin.

This miracle plant has been found to be repellant to the mosquitoes which carry yellow fever and malaria, as well as the tick which carries Lyme disease. And all of this wrapped up in a deciduous shrub that grows from 6 to 8 feet tall, thrives in zones 5 to 10, is very drought tolerant, and carries tiny lilac flowers in spring that by cool weather turn into tightly clustered berries in resplendent shades of purple.

plantDuring medieval times, the hellebore, also known as the Christmas rose, was considered a weapon against witches, evil spirits, and general insanity. Perhaps these apocryphal stories arose because these exquisite beauties not only have a long bloom time, but as they love the cooler weather, it’s not unusual to see them in the middle of winter. This northern gardener has even seen them proudly appearing through a bank of snow! Their colors remind one of a Japanese water color, as they drift from a light green to pale lavender to a deep plum. Mature plants form clumps about 18 to 24 inches tall and 24 to 30 inches in width, and if happy where planted, they will self-sow. Expect 50 or more flowers per plant. The leaves are evergreen, but when cutting them back in late winter, be sure to wear gloves, as contact with the leaves may cause mild dermatitis in some people; don’t worry about losing them to deer for this same reason. We love them as ground covers for deciduous shrubs, so consider housing them beneath the Callicarpa americana.

plantThe Iberis sempervirens, or perennial candytuft, was employed by the ancients up through Colonial times as a cure for rheumatism, and gout, and is said to be useful in treating cardiac hypertrophy, asthma, and bronchitis in doses of from one to three grains of the seeds. Today it is used in homeopathy for nervousness and muscle soreness. The candytuft is a low growing evergreen sub-shrub, 10 to 12 inches in height, which will thrive from zones 3 to 8 (just be sure to provide full sun). This is one of the truly great plants for rock gardens, spilling over a wall, or as a remarkable border plant for walkways. The flowers are flat, dense clusters of a startlingly bright white. The candytuft is a care-free plant, whose fragrance also encourages one to add it to a cutting garden. Plant it around your mailbox and you’ll have instant curb appeal!

plantWe’ve been discussing plants that not only provide us with verdurous vision, but also have been used throughout the centuries as curatives. We’d now like to introduce you to that antithesis, the Daphne odora, or winter daphne, which is highly toxic; even coming in contact with the sap may cause a mild case of dermatitis. Originally from China, and named in 1784, by 1874 it was being grown in California. Its highly aromatic flowers are dark pink and the sweet smell of them may last for many weeks, beginning mostly in March but as early as late January. Initially named Shui Hsiang, or Sleeping Scent, the legend that surrounds the daphne is that a Chinese monk of Lu Shan discovered the plant upon awakening from a nap to its spicy fragrance. To best appreciate this evergreen’s intoxicating aroma, plant it towards the front of a sunny, sheltered border close to an entryway or a path. Use the flowers for sachets, and potpourri, or to perfume water. The leaves are long, oval, green, and often variegated. It’s hardy from zone 7 to zone 10, prefers moist, extremely well-drained soil, morning sun with afternoon shade, and will grow to a height of 3 to 4 feet, with a width of 2 to 4 feet.

plant Another of our favorite plants for winter watching is the Bergenia 'Autumn Glory'. This low-growing perennial is known for its long and narrow dark green leaves, which develop rich plum-red tones in the winter. Topping this glossy, rubbery textured evergreen are tall stems of bell-shaped coral-pink flowers which add the “glory” in early spring. This gem thrives in both sun and partial shade, is a perennial in zones 4 to 9, is deer and rabbit resistant, and at only 6 to 12 inches in height, has a vast array of uses. Mass plant the bergenia, or use it as an edging along a walkway. It’s perfect for container planting or in your cutting garden. This gardener uses it as a border for my ornamental grasses garden; as the season cools, and we look to our plants for textual interest, the bergenia will provide it where lesser plants will succumb to the elements.

photoJust as we look forward to adding a dramatic touch to our holiday wreaths with holly berries, we can enjoy that same drama in our gardens. A recent introduction from master plant breeder Dr. Elwin Orton of Rutgers has given us the Ilex 'Red Beauty', an evergreen hardy to zone 7, which grows upright in a wide conical shape, similar to that of a Christmas tree. It sports very dark blue-green, glossy leaves with undulating edges, and in fall and winter dark red berries provide additional visual interest.

Have we whetted your appetite for a winter garden? We guarantee that these will serve up a capacious Cockaigne, a wintry wonderland of scent and color and texture that will extend your gardening pleasure throughout the year.




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