Winter colour and scent in the garden

Winter can seem a long grey period with short days and little colour. But it needn’t be like that. There is much the winter garden can offer, including colourful stems, scent and flowers, all of which are brought alive by the warm, low sunlight of winter.

As a starting point colourful stems offer much a simple but exciting reveal once the autumn foliage has fallen. Cornus, or dogwood, of course are famous for their colourful stems, from the vivid yellow green of Cornus sericea Flaviramea to the reds and oranges of Cornus Winter Fire. These fireplace tints can be complimented or contrasted for differing effect. Placed in from of the bright white trunks of the birch Betula Doorenbos for example the Cornus really come alive.  Around the base or the Cornus you can then sprinkle some ground cover Bergenia, whose large leaves take on vibrant autumn tones, or the winter-flowering heather Erica carnea for a colourful combination. Alternatively, for a softer tonal look, set the fiery Cornus colours next to the spent pale brown flowerheads of Hydrangeas, the golden seed clouds of grasses such as Molinia, Stipa or Deschampsia, or the soft rust autumn foliage tones of Japanese grass Hakonechloa macra Nicholas.

On the tree front there is a wide choice of ornamental trees with coloured bark from the Tibetan cherry Prunus serrula, which has a bronzed mahogany trunk, to the birch Betula albosinensis which has an orange-brown bark which peels off in sections to reveal lighter layers beneath. And there is the Manchurian cherry tree Prunus maackii ‘Amber Beauty’ which, as the name suggests, has a paler golden-brown trunk.

Scent is a vital fourth dimension in any garden and there is much to be enjoyed at this time of year. Chimonanthus praecox (Wintersweet) is a vigorous shrub with sweetly-scented, sulphur yellow flowers with purple internal staining. It should be placed near a path or door to appreciate its delicious scent, and so that it is accessible to take cuttings for aromatic indoor flower arrangements. Viburnum x bodnatense is another large shrub with perfumed pink flowers on bare stems throughout the winter. Other winter-flowering scented shrubs include the paper bush Edgeworthia crysantha, an Asian native, which produces yellow flowers dusted with white, as though covered in frost. As this is a little tender it’s best trained against a sunny wall or in a sheltered bright spot. Lonicera fragrantissima, another potentially large shrub and a relative of the familiar honeysuckle, produces creamy-white fragrant flowers throughout winter and can be semi-evergreen in milder winters. For a powerful punch of sweet scent, it’s hard to beat the familiar but invaluable Sarcoccoca humilis – I like to place these evergreen, relatively small beauties next to a shady back or side door which receives regular use in winter.

Don’t get me wrong – I can’t wait for spring and summer. But in the meantime, let’s make the most of those occasional crisp, sunny winter days with some cheery, warming colour and soothing scent.