Thursday, November 17, 2011

Landscape Plants for NC: Winter

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chysantha)
brightens our winter gardens

By Jan Little
Director of Education & Public Programs

One of the great pleasures of gardening in North Carolina is the presence of flowers year-round. Each season has its magic, and the winter—with its spare quality, stripped of leafy ruffles and decorations—is no exception.

The calendar does not rule gardens in North Carolina with an iron fist. Instead, various plants can thrive and blossom all year, thanks to the mild climate. Bobby Mottern, director of horticulture at Sarah P. Duke Gardens, has a list of plants you might consider for your winter garden.

In December, the garden can be decked out for winter holidays with iridescent red berries on the evergreen yaupon hollies (Ilex vomitoria) and the deciduous hollies (Ilex verticillata selections). These are both native plants, and there are a number of forms or hybrids to choose among for ultimate size or berry color. As with most hollies, planting both a male and female form is guaranteed to produce a berry display.

Also, sasanqua camellias (Camellia sasanqua or C. sasanqua x oleifera) begin to flower in late autumn and extend through January, if not into February. The sasanquas have been selected and hybridized with Camellia oleifera to create a wide range in sizes and flower colors. Their dark, glossy green foliage serves as a beautiful backdrop through most of the year and some selections add mildly spice-scented flowers! Considerable work has been done at the National Arboretum in selecting and hybridizing winter-hardy camellias; look for the plant’s “Winter’s” series (Winter’s Charm, Winter’s Hope, etc.) to find some of these selections.

A beautiful plant in all seasons, hybrid witchhazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) are a special treat throughout the winter season. Again, there are many choices here for size, color and fragrance. In general, the witchhazels bloom in late January and February with golden yellow, orange or red flowers, many with fragrance. Look for the hybrids Arnold Promise (introduced by the Arnold Arboretum) for both fragrance and bright yellow flowers, or Jelena, also known as Copper Beauty, with bright apricot to copper colored flowers. Additionally, Primavera is known for the early floral fragrance from abundant yellow blossoms.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chysantha) also brightens our winter gardens. The winter flower buds of this plant form beautiful, downy chandeliers of buds (similar to its cousin, the Daphne), held in downward-facing clusters. Beginning in February, occasionally in late January, this flower chandelier begins to face up and out toward the sun, opening to a wonderfully fragrant egg-yolk yellow flower. This plant also has a pretty habit and ornamental form that is attractive throughout the year.

A more well-known camellia, the Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) adds its large, showy flowers to the mix in late January. With large, 3- to 5-inch diameter flowers of any number of white, pink, rose, and red flower choices, this camellia defies winter temperatures.

And late winter is greeted by the superb scent of fragrant wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). This plant has only one season of interest each year – the fragrant flowers in February – but that season is so wonderful it is easy to overlook its shortcomings at other times of the year. Although a plain Jane the rest of the year, it can be a useful backdrop and worth every bit of garden square footage for that season of bloom.

All of these plants can be seen at Duke Gardens. If you would like to learn more about winter season plants, please join us for Bobby’s next class, “Landscape Plants for North Carolina Gardens: Winter,” beginning on Nov. 29 from 1 to 3:30 p.m. and running weekly for three weeks. The fee is $110; $90 for Gardens members or Duke faculty, staff or students.

For information about this and other classes, or to register, please call 919-668-1707.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St. Visit online at, or call 684-3698.

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