It’s still cold and wet outside, but these early-blooming beauties will put a smile on your face.
WE’RE AT OUR PEAK of sensory deprivation by now, so deeply into winter, so very far from summer. I long to sniff a fragrant garden rose as much as I pine for early daylight and the warmth of the sun.
I know we all say we love leaves as much as flowers, but all the fabulous foliage in the world doesn’t help right now. We crave flowers as lustily as the bees and butterflies do. Winter blooms throw us a lifeline, a reminder that all that pent-up life force beneath the soil is about to burst through and grow up into springtime.
Some of the earliest flowering trees are breaking bud, and bulbs, from snowdrops to tulips, are midway through their sequence of bloom. But it’s the perennials and flowering shrubs that I most eagerly anticipate in late winter.
I never understand snowbirds, decamping for the desert just when hellebores are stretching their faces to the weak winter sunshine; when pulmonaria shocks with the intensity of its tiny cobalt blue blooms; and lacy bleeding heart pushes up out of ground so cold and hard, you can hardly force a shovel into it. In late winter we watch the garden return to life, usually in weather so inauspicious, you can’t help but see this unfolding as the miracle it surely is.
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Now’s the moment to visit the Witt Winter Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum to get a blast of this seasonal dance on a large scale, including camellia, witch hazel and statuesque mahonia, swarming with Anna’s hummingbirds. Yes, this is all going on at the Arboretum, and could be happening outside your own windows right now, too, if you’ve planted some of these winter-flowering beauties.
Thank goodness we have options besides leggy forsythia, which now comes in a scaled-down version (F. ‘Arnold’s Dwarf’). When it comes to beauty of leaf, flower and scent, consider the newish, yellow-variegated winter-flowering Daphne odora ‘Maejima’ with flashy leaves and flowers that smell like Hawaii.
One of the flowers I remember best from childhood is pulmonaria, probably because they thrived in our shady Lake Forest Park garden. Known as lungwort, it’s a sprawling perennial with soft leaves often splashed and spotted with white or cream. The little bell-shaped blooms range from pink to mauve to a brilliant cobalt blue, sometimes all on the same plant.
Corydalis is another little woodlander, sometimes with yellow flowers, but the newer, more-popular cultivars have blue flowers in shades from palest sky to twilight. Even the lacy leaves are often blue-toned; they grow into a mound topped with the little spurred flowers.
Hellebores, or lenten roses, are the jewels of winter, blooming in shades from clearest white to deep purple. The pinks and yellows show up best in the garden, like hybrid Helleborus ‘Cherry Blossom’. The leaves are evergreen and deer-resistant. But believe me, you grow this baby for the large, semidouble, pink-stained flowers and the absolute gorgeousness of its stamen-fluffed center.
Plant these early bloomers with bulbs, evergreen heucheras, small-scale ferns and grasses like carex and black mondo to plump up the garden. Then sit back and watch the fresh season hold forth.