The garden is quiet, winter chills the air, and the ground is damp underfoot. But softly and silently flowers emerge like the rosy flush of a cheek on a cold winter's day. Romantic? Maybe. But some of my favourite flowers can be found blooming in winter. They are not usually show-stoppers or particularly flamboyant, but they have a subtle charm all of their own.
I love the elegant beauty of hellebores. Also known as the 'Winter rose' or 'Lenten rose', these woodland perennials are revealed as deciduous leaves fall. They come to life as the winter rain soaks the ground. The flowers range in colour from the purest white to freckled pale tones of pink and green, to dusty rose and dark burgundy.
Plant hellebores in dappled light to full sun, ensuring they are planted in well-drained, humus-rich soil. These are tolerant plants, and once established, will form good-sized clumps which can be divided at this time of year.
They are perfect planted in a border garden under deciduous trees, where the leaves fall and mulch the plants and the sun penetrates through bare winter branches. Hellebores flower best where they get a little more light in winter and are not in dense shade. Being woodland plants, they will not be happy in a spot that is hot and dry in summer.
Another pretty winter flower which has its own quaint charm is the primrose. One of my favourites is the English wild primrose, Primula vulgaris. It is an open woodland plant, found also under hedgerows and on shady banks. This species is a soft pale yellow.
Another wild primula, the cowslip (Primula veris), is more often found in fields and is suited to cool climates. The primula genus is complex and consists of more than 400 species and many more cultivars. I'm not a huge fan of some of the garish hybrid primula colours, but I do love the uplifted friendly faces of the English wild primrose, with their unfettered simplicity.
Writer D.H. Lawrence captures the beauty of these early flowers in English woodlands in his timeless novel Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928).
Here, he describes the first flowers in a forest ravaged by winter and symbolic of the new life beginning for the heroine. "Little gusts of sunshine blew, strangely bright, and lit up the celandines by the wood's edge, under the hazel-rods. They spangled out bright and yellow. And the wood was still, stiller, but yet gusty and with crossing sun. The first windflowers were out, and even the wood seemed pale with the pallor of endless little anemones sprinkling the shaken floor - how cold the anemones looked, bobbing their naked white shoulders over crinoline skirts of green. But they stood it. A first few bleached little primroses too by the path, and yellow buds undoing themselves."
Primroses are perennials so will last for many seasons and can be divided up easily.
They suit full sun or part shade and cool, moist humus-rich soil, but should not dry out in summer. If you're after something with edgier sophistication, you'll be won over by the "Victorian Laced" primrose. This is a heritage primrose introduced to England in the 1600s and is a rather remarkable range of flowers with yellow throats and very dark petals - reds through to purples and brown-black - edged in gold or silver white. They are apparently longer-lived than modern cultivars. I would plant these in a flash if I could get my hands on some.
Jonathan Cox at Palmers Remuera (who I discovered also happens to be a D.H. Lawrence admirer, having written a thesis on the above novel) tells me they are likely to get gold and silver lace polyanthus in this season, but it is tricky to get hold of the wild English primrose.
He recommended Maple Glen in Southland, which has an impressive catalogue. It takes minimum box orders, so it may be worth teaming up, or contacting Jonathan directly if you're interested.
Jonathan noted many special perennials are being lost or are becoming harder to find because the public are not as aware of these plants anymore. The inspirational gardens, groups and nurseries listed in the box on this page appreciate our support, and are a treat to visit.
Winning winter flowers
1. Galanthus species: true cool-climate snowdrops, or snowflakes. Leucojum vernum is what New Zealanders recognise as a snowdrop. (w+g)*
2. Cyclamen (w, p, b)*
3. Wild English Primrose (s, y), Primula cultivars (all
4. Helleborus species and cultivars (w, p, g, b)*
5. Daphne odora (s, w, p)
6. Camellia species and cultivars (w, p, b)
7. Magnolia stellata (s, w, p, b, y)
1. Bulb. 2. Tuberous perennial. 3. Herbaceous perennial. 4. Rhizomatous perennial. 5. Evergreen shrub or small tree. 6. Small deciduous tree.
Scent a feature: (s) colours: white (w), pink (p), green (g), burgundy (b), pale yellow (y).
Where to find them
• Hellebores: wairere.co.nz (Waikato);
• Clifton Homestead Nursery: hellebores.co.nz (Otago)
• Wild English Primrose (Primula vulgaris): mapleglen.co.nz (mail order), aremanursery.co.nz (no mail order)
• Cowslips (available as seed): kingsseeds.co.nz
For more information: Join the Auckland Bulb and Perennial Society or a garden club where you can visit collectors' and enthusiasts' gardens and maybe swap plants. Go to nzgardener.co.nz and look under "Garden Clubs".