Gardening David Wheeler
The hardiest of gardeners can dismiss November as a dud month. Still, a visit to a nursery or garden centre at this time of the year reveals a cornucopia of desirable plants that flourish during the chill.
Many deciduous trees and shrubs will have discarded their foliage by now, leaving in their wake colourful or otherwise interesting bark. The lowgrowing dogwoods ( Cornus) family bestows a myriad of delights, with vibrant, woody stems, shaded from the deepest wine red ( C. alba ‘Westonbirt’) and purple-black ( C. a. ‘ Kesselringii’) to a host of fiery orange/red hues ( C. a. ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’, ‘ C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ and more) that seem to smoulder when caught in low winter sunshine. To keep any of these within bounds – growing, say, no taller than three feet – the stems should be chopped off close to ground level just as the leaf buds begin to swell in early spring.
Among the smaller-growing evergreen and semi-evergreens are the daphnes and sarcococcas, both bearing richlyperfumed winter flowers. Among the best of the daphnes (but bear in mind their toxicity, if accidently ingested, and that their sap can irritate the skin) is Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ – erect to about five feet with purple-pink buds producing highly-fragrant white flowers. It carries the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, signifying outstanding all-round qualities. It’s derived from seed produced by D. b. ‘Ghurka’, distinctive in its bright tan bark with mauve-purple buds that open to pale pink flowers between January and March. Coming from the 10,000ft Milke Danda Ridge in Nepal, it’s no stranger to harsh weather.
The sarcococcas (sweet or Christmas box) also originate from that part of the world – and south-eastern China and the Himalayas. Slow-growers, they have narrow, glossy, dark green leaves that always look good. But in winter months they shoot into the gardener’s Top Ten, because of their long succession of small, white, scented flowers.
There’s scent aplenty, too, from the winter-flowering honeysuckles, especially cream-flowered Lonicera purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’ and L. fragrantissima, known sometimes by the common names Chinese honeysuckle, kiss-me-at-the-gate, sweet breath of spring or January jasmine. But that jasmine association can be misleading at this time of the year; it shouldn’t be confused with the bright forsythiayellow, true jasmine ( Jasminum nudiflorum) – yes, floriferous in the depths of winter, but lacking anything to please the olfactory system.
Closer to the ground are the winterflowering pansies (they, too, can be scented) and a great tribe of cyclamen, with varied foliage and ‘shuttlecock’ flowers of the purest white, through every hue of candy pink, to dark and mysterious, vinaceous reds.
I buy cyclamen when they’re flowering and keep them for several weeks as indoor decoration, before planting them out in the garden where, in semi-shade, they perform all over again in successive winters, increasing all the while, making a cheery link to January and February’s monumental snowdrop parade.
A November visit to a good garden centre also offers much for those without gardens. Ranks of African violets are available, as are Cape primroses ( Streptocarpus), scentless but seen now in intoxicating shades of pale and indigo blue, burgundy red, assorted pinks and unsullied whites. Alas, too tender to be pensioned off in the garden, they can, though, with minimal attention, be kept going for years in cool porches or on sunless window sills.
To me, fragrance is paramount at this time of the year. If I’ve remembered to ‘force’ a few bulbs the rewards are magnificent: huge shots of pure colour and more seductive whiffs than anything from Jermyn Street’s finest perfumers.
The intense indigo of the Cape primrose