A Fragrant Winter Wonderland

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Livia’

One of the most common questions I am asked as a gardener is, “What is your favourite season?” I can’t answer this. The truth is I love all seasons but if someone were to ask me what is my favourite time of year to walk around the garden and to chat about plants, then the answer will always be winter. I love to point out the little details which people might usually walk straight past and I love to see the surprise on their faces that there is so much to see at this time of year.

The winter garden is filled with perfume. While some winter flowers are beautiful, many plants put all of their effort into producing fragrance in order to attract pollinators. Low light levels mean displaying showy, colourful flowers can be a waste of effort but producing a sweet perfume which can be carried on the breeze will entice cold hardy foraging insects. Bumblebees often venture out on milder winter days, sometimes even honeybees, so these winter blooms can offer vital pollen and nectar. Flies and hoverflies also play their part in pollination.

I thought I would share a few of my favourite winter flowering plants.


Hamamelis mollis

One of the most recognisable winter flowering plants, witch-hazels offer a bright and cheerful splash of colour during the darkest days. Witch-hazels are very photogenic. The low winter sun, flashing through their bare branches and spidery flowers creates magical scenes and plenty of photo opportunities. Can you imagine wandering through a forest and stumbling upon such a spectacular plant in its native habitat? There are five recognised species of hamamelis. Three of these hail from North America: H. virginiana, H. vernalis and H. ovalis. One species is native to Japan: H. japonica and one to China: H. mollis

Hamamelis mollis (mollis meaning soft) is the Chinese witch-hazel. It has one of the best scents, better even than most of the man made cultivars. Flowering usually from December to February, for us here in the Midlands of England but peaking around mid January, this large shrub emits a potent scent which can travel great distances. The scent, to me, smells like lemon but with a hint of spice.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’

While Hamamelis mollis makes for a very large, sprawling shrub. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’ is slightly more compact. The very showy orange flowers are centered with carmine red and they quite appropriately smell of orange peel. Their sweet scent is not the strongest but on a good day it can be picked up from quite a few metres away.

The x intermedia types are a hybrid between the Chinese and Japanese witch-hazels.

Hamamelis vernalis ‘Christmas Cheer’

Hamamelis vernalis (Ozark witch-hazel) is native to the Ozark Plateau in central North America. One cultivar of this species, H. vernalis ‘Christmas Cheer’ is my favourite of all witch-hazels. This plant produces tiny red and yellow flowers reliably in time for Christmas Day. The powerful scent reminds me of sweet, Christmas spiced nuts. Unfortunately this cultivar is very difficult to get hold of in the UK but other cultivars of vernalis are available, such as the purple flowered ‘Amethyst’.


Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’

Daphne odora was one of my Grandma’s favourite plants but she never managed to own one for herself. Maybe that is why I am obsessed with this genus of the thymelaeaceae family and always on the lookout for new plants. My Grandma also gave me an early insight into remembering botanical names by using memory links. To remember Daphne odora, she suggested I imagine my aunt Dora falling flat onto her back in the shrub and shouting to her friend, “Help Daphne!”, to which Daphne would reply, “Oh Dora!”.

Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill is one of the most well known Daphnes. Usually the shrub is smothered in highly fragrant, sugar pink flowers from early January until mid February. This year, 2023, where I work at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Jacqueline is a few weeks late. The sharp drop in temperatures in early winter has delayed flowering for many of our plants. The fragrance from this large shrub carries on the breeze for at least fifty metres. Colder air seems to amplify the aroma. In frosty, more exposed conditions the plant can be completely defoliated during winter. Don’t panic though, they are quite resilient and should bounce back in spring. The flowers are not usually too badly damaged by frost, other than an occasional tinge of brown to the petals.

Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’

When planting a daphne, choose carefully, they do not like to be pruned and they really hate being moved. Choose the right plant for the right place and stick with it. Most daphnes need a sheltered spot and prefer dappled shade. Keep them out of the scorching summer sun. Daphne ‘Perfume Princess’, a hybrid of D. bholua and D. odora, is said to be much more tolerant of hot sunshine but I have found this cultivar to scorch just as much as any other daphne. It is a great plant though, compact at around 3ft x 3ft, free flowering and with a strong scent, which I liken to a tea rose, quite different to other plants in this genus.

Daphne bholua var. glacialis ‘Gurkha’

One daphne which really does stand out from the crowd is Daphne bholua var. glacialis ‘Gurkha’. This upright, medium sized shrub is completely deciduous. Profuse flowers cluster on bare, gnarly stems from late January through to the end of February. The scent is gorgeous and draws attention from passers by. This is a very robust plant and probably the hardiest of the bholua species.


Edgeworthia chrysantha

Edgeworthias hail from the woodlands of China and the Himalayas. It is a close relative of daphne, also in the thymelaeaceae family and does share some characteristics. Edgeworthia chrysantha is a small, goblet shaped shrub of 1.5m x 1.5m. In winter it drops all leaves as small flattened clusters of flower buds appear at the tip of each stem. In February these flowers open and begin to emit a wonderful, sweet lemony scent. This plant really does need a sheltered, free draining spot with even moisture. Give it a good mulch in autumn for extra winter protection. I did lose one of these early last year, which I think was due to the very dry spring.

I have also planted Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Grandiflora’. As the name suggests it has larger flowers but with the same sweet scent.

Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Red Dragon’

Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Red Dragon’ is a striking plant. It is very difficult to get hold of but is slowly becoming more available in the UK. I planted one of these last year and hope to see it flourish. The fragrance is not so punchy as straight chrysantha but its peculiar appearance is a real head turner.

Tip: Once your edgeworthia is established, keep an eye around the bottom of the plant. Small suckers can be carefully teased away and potted up to make new plants. I may be shot for telling you this!


Chimonanthus praecox

Chimonanthus praecox (wintersweet) is possibly the most eagerly awaited flowering shrub of winter. The flowers are not much to look at, a little scruffy and often blackened by frost but the beautiful scent they emit billows around the gardens. Often mistaken for a witch-hazel, wintersweet is actually related to calycanthus in the calycanthaceae family. C. praecox is a very large and sprawling shrub, reaching 4m x 4m. It can look scruffy for most of the year but with around two months of fabulous scent, it is worth growing if you have the room. Bear in mind, patience is needed with this one. It takes 7 years to flower and if pruned, even longer.

Chimonanthus praecox ‘Cobhay Sunshine’

I recently came across Chimonanthus praecox ‘Cobhay Sunshine’, from Junkers Nursery in Somerset. A more compact and upright form of wintersweet, ‘Cobhay Sunshine’ is said to flower on younger plants. The flowers are pure yellow, without the red centre found in the straight species and the scent is fantastic.

Christmas Box

Sarcococca confusa

Sarcococca (Christmas box) is a genus in the buxaceae family, closely related to box. It is native to southeastern Asia and the Himalayas. I find sarcococcas to be some of the easiest plants to grow for winter interest. Sarcococca hookeria var. digyna is in fact a little too easy to grow and can create a very wide, suckering shrub. Saying this, it doesn’t spread too fast. We grow a number of different species including S. confusa, which has white flowers followed by black berries and S. ruscifolia, white flowers followed by red berries. If you are lucky, last year’s bright berries will hang around to contrast with this years flowers.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna ‘Winter Gem’

Finally, Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna ‘Winter Gem’ is one cultivar I highly recommend. It seems to be less vigorous than the species, in fact I have had one happily growing in quite a small planter for a few years. The red calyxes of the flowers are very showy behind the white petals. Bear in mind the scent from sarcococcas is quite strong, some might say acrid, so not a plant for a confined space or too close to the house. It makes me sneeze! Christmas box is usually quite an affordable shrub so a good starter plant for a winter garden.

I am very fortunate to work in a Botanical Garden and lucky enough to work around these wonderful plants on a daily basis. Some of these plants are quite expensive to buy but adding just one winter flowering plant to your garden will lift the spirits during these darker months. Winter is a magical season, we should cherish it.

Continue reading “A Fragrant Winter Wonderland”

Growing euphorbias from cuttings

Propagation via cuttings (clones)

Working in a public garden and chatting to visitors gives me insights into what plants are popular right now. One of the most asked about genera at the moment is euphorbia. This may be down to their appearance in stylish designer gardens with muted palettes at flower shows or maybe it’s their drought tolerance that is so appealing. I personally find them to be useful plants which work well with many planting schemes, from cottage gardens to tropical to arid.

Growing euphorbias is very easy but beware, all euphorbias exude a milky sap from their leaves and stems when cut which can cause severe irritation. Touching your eyes with just a trace of sap on your hands could result in a trip to A&E. It’s best to wear gloves when handling the plants and if working amongst them you should keep arms and legs covered.

Propagating most euphorbias is simple. They can be grown from seed but I find the easiest way to get quick results is to take cuttings (clones).

Select fresh, non flowering stems, preferably this year’s new growth from lower down the plant.

Remove lower leaves from the stem and tidy the bottom cut with a sharp knife just below a leaf node, on a cleaner chopping board than mine. Trimming the top leaves by about half will help reduce transpiration (water loss). Many gardeners will dip the stem into ground charcoal which stops the sap from dripping but I don’t find this necessary. I never use rooting hormone either but I guess it’s down to personal choice.

Prepare a free draining mix to grow your cuttings in as they will rot if waterlogged. I use equal parts compost, perlite and grit. Fill a pot with the mix, water it, dib holes with a pencil or cane and pop in your cuttings. Slightly firm the mix around them, add a label and cover with either a plastic bag or as I prefer to use, the bottom half of a plastic bottle. If using a bag, place a couple of sticks in the pot to prop the bag up and prevent it from sticking to the leaves.

Place the pot in a warm, not hot position, out of direct sunlight. It’s worth lifting off the cover once each week to refresh the air inside. The cuttings should be kept moist but not wet. I often find they need no additional watering before roots develop, usually within a few weeks.

Spring is the best time for taking cuttings but so long as they are well rooted before winter most varieties can be propagated until the end of summer. The E. x pasteurii ‘Skinny Bere’ cuttings shown above were taken last August. I left them in an unheated greenhouse over winter where they sat quite dormant. Now they are growing quickly and even branching out. ‘Skinny Bere’ is a large, statuesque plant to around 5ft tall but euphorbias of all sizes are available.

A few of my favourites…

Grasses: A Sensory Experience

Grass Garden at Birmingham Botanical Gardens

My earliest memory of grasses is from fields opposite the house where I grew up. In the suburbs of Birmingham there were not many areas of farmland left so we were lucky to have this little oasis. To me this was the countryside. Along with my siblings and neighbourhood friends we would feed carrots to the horses and run for our lives when the farmer let his cows into the old meadow. They would stampede downhill to drink from the brook where we played so we often had to climb into the trees for safety. Alas these fields were turned into a housing estate during my teens but I’m certain that enjoying this bit of green space had a profound and lasting effect on me. Watching diggers move in and the concrete being poured was heartbreaking. I’d guess the loss of those fields is the reason I now jump at the chance to travel out of the city, even if only to visit a manicured garden.

A few years ago I was tasked with maintaining and developing a large grass garden. The task was pretty daunting, especially as I didn’t have much knowledge of ornamental grasses, but I quickly fell in love with them. I think there’s an element of nostalgia, especially attached to the giant grasses. Maybe they make me feel like a small child again, taking me back to walking through fields of swaying fescue and wheat. It’s clear, many people are now turning to grasses to add a sensory element to their gardens. Maybe, like me, they long for the fields and meadows we have lost. I thought I’d share a few of my favourite grasses.

Miscanthus floridulus

One of the most widely cultivated genera of grasses is miscanthus. From the towering and jungle-like Miscanthus floridulus, which grows in excess of ten feet, to the modest Miscanthus sinensis ‘Starlight’, growing only to around three feet, there is a miscanthus for almost any garden size and style.

I like to use larger miscanthuses, such as floridulus and sacchariflorus in conjunction with tropical plants such as cannas and bananas. These dramatic leaves are very effective planted densely, with narrow pathways running between. They are perfect for a childrens’ adventure garden. 

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Malepartus’ is a plant with striking burgundy flowers which grows to around six feet tall and sits happily at the rear of a herbaceous border. ‘Starlight’ will take it’s place in the middle or front of the border. There are many cultivars of M. sinensis available but beware, no matter their size, after two or three years they may well need dividing and this is no easy task. I recently heard a television gardener telling viewers that miscanthus will thrive in heavy clay. This is true but bear in mind, heavy clay will make them all the more difficult to divide.

Cenchrus alopecuroides ‘Dark Desire’

Fountain grasses add a floaty, dreamy look to a border but work equally well standing alone as a specimen plant where they can achieve their natural dome shape. They are the most tactile of grasses, generally about the right height to brush a hand through whilst walking past. Cenchrus alopecuroides ‘Dark Desire’, formerly Pennisetum alopecuroides, is one of my favourite fountain grasses.

Cenchrus longisetus ‘Cream Falls’, formerly Pennisetum villosum ‘Cream Falls’ is another beauty. It is said not to be reliably hardy here in the midlands but I grew mine from seed three years ago and it’s still going strong. Flowering in it’s first season, this has been very popular with visitors. This one is a shorter grass, good for the front of a border.

Cenchrus caudatus ‘Tail Feathers’

Another grass which I grew from seed, two years ago is Cenchrus caudatus ‘Tail Feathers’, formerly Pennisetum macrourum. This is a lovely upright grass to around four feet, again very tactile and almost impossible to pass without stroking. I have noticed it is starting to send out runners so it might need to be kept in check. This also flowered well in it’s first season. I’ve seen it looking very happy grown in a pot, which might be a good idea for anybody worried about it spreading.

July 2020

A short video of the grass garden from July 2020 demonstrates how happily grasses will sit among and compliment a wide range of plants. From tropical plants to cottage gardens, from prairie planting to exotics, there is a grass which fits the bill. The breeze in this video demonstrates one of the most important sensory elements of grasses: sound caused by movement.

In July a lot of the grasses are still not at full height. September to October is their real peak season but they hold their own well into winter. Throughout winter most of the grasses will stay in place, with the exception of a few, such as molinia, which seem to be the first to fall over. I pay careful consideration to plant pale coloured grasses such, as deschampsia which carry clouds of tiny oat-like seeds, behind plants such as rudbeckia which produce attractive dark seed heads. The resulting silhouettes add another element of winter interest.

Lighting is an important consideration when planting grasses. I am very fortunate to be working on a sun drenched, south facing slope which is perfect for enhancing colours and creating shadows, especially during winter when the sun is lower in the sky.

Pale winter grasses are a perfect backdrop for attractive seed heads.

A few maintenance tips

Every March, we cut down all remaining deciduous grasses, to ground level. This can be an arduous task. Secateurs are the tool of choice for smaller jobs but large grasses, such as miscanthus, have very hard stems meaning your wrist will soon start to ache. For the largest grasses we use loppers but for thinner or softer stemmed grasses, to save time and our wrists, we use a hedge trimmer. I have seen some gardeners tie the grass into a bundle beforehand which means the whole lot can then be carried away once cut. This is helpful for smaller jobs but far too much faffing for large clumps. Another idea is to cut through the grasses from top to bottom in a ‘Zorro’ action. The resulting chopped stems are left on the ground between the grasses and act as a mulch, suppressing weeds and conserving moisture throughout the summer months. Most grasses do not need feeding, a rich mulch such as garden compost or manure will encourage lush and floppy growth which will fall over.

Working on a tight budget means I have to be resourceful when it comes to sourcing more grasses. Many are quite easily grown from seed. In the case of Miscanthus nepalensis I harvest seed fresh in November and sow under cover straight away. I usually find germination takes just a couple of weeks. I prick out, pot on and grow frost free during winter, planting out in early summer once frost has passed. The plants usually flower in their first season. When I do buy grasses, I turn to https://www.knollgardens.co.uk/ Their website offers lots of advice and grasses can be searched due to their growing conditions.

Another way of propagation is division. It’s best not to leave the larger grasses to get too big before dividing. When dividing I find it best to dig a trench around the plant, this gives room for leverage. I will then slice through the clump using a spade, starting at the outside and working slowly through, cutting repeatedly. Don’t try to dig straight into the middle of the root ball, you will gain nothing but an injury. Once sliced through, I push two forks back to back into the middle of the plant and prize the root ball apart. This is where the trench comes in handy, without it the divisions would have nowhere to move to. As you can see, dividing the giant miscanthus above required a heftier tool.

Hopefully there’s a few helpful tips here which might inspire you to grow more grasses or maybe even your first. If you’d like to follow the progress of our grass garden then please do follow me on twitter https://twitter.com/christophhowell

Continue reading “Grasses: A Sensory Experience”

The Winter Garden of Surprises

Once again we are being told to stay at home, though hopefully this time for a shorter period. The big difference between this lockdown and the last is we are heading into winter. The benefits to both our physical and mental health from sunlight and fresh air are well documented, so the prospect of lower light levels and shorter days can seem gloomy. Making the most of the daylight we do have now is essential and spending just an hour or two outside, for exercise, can boost our health and open our eyes to a very different kind of winter wonderland.

Twisting bare branches of magnolias and illuminated leaves of acers.

The winter sun, lower in the sky, creates magical silhouettes and illuminates leaves, old flower stems and seedheads. As trees move gently with the breeze, sunlight flashes and flickers and shadows will shift, revealing different highlights and focal points. A camera or phone memory card can quickly be filled by such ample photographic opportunity.

Hamamelis mollis (witch hazel).

At no other time of year is the air filled with such a variety of sweet and  powerful fragrances, attracting the few remaining pollinators. Citrusy and spicy witch hazels are joined by rose scented daphnes, Christmas box, vanilla scented viburnums, wintersweet and even honeysuckles.

Yes, winter honeysuckle really is a thing and the scent is a delight. Lonicera fragrantissima is one of the most well known winter honeysuckles. The flowers are smaller than its summer flowering cousin and can sometimes be missed by the eye but the nose will certainly find it.

Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’
(nepalese paperbark).

Fragrant winter flowering shrubs are enjoyed even before autumn is over and many flower until spring but mid January is when the earlier and later flowering plants overlap, creating an assault on the senses. Daphne bholua ‘Darjeeling’ flowers throughout December and into January. As its blooms fade, Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ takes over, flowering for a good six weeks. Daphne is a wonderful genus with different species in flower every month of the year.

Snowdrops and crocuses.

Often called the harbingers of spring, Galanthus (snowdrops) have a much longer season than many would think. The earliest, such as some cultivars of Galanthus reginae- olgae, flower in autumn. Different species flower in succession throughout winter and into spring.

Cyclamen coum (eastern sowbread).

From autumn through to spring, cyclamen are some of the hardest working plants. There are 23 species of cyclamen, though most people only know the ‘florist’ type which are usually found adorning supermarket shelves in garish colours at this time of year. These florist cyclamen however are not hardy as they are bred from the tender Cyclamen persicum. There are two main, easy to grow species for the garden.

Cyclamen hederifolium flower from autumn to early winter. Flowers are followed by intricately patterned ivy like foliage. Cyclamen coum will show their leaves from autumn followed by drifts of flowers from December, right up to March. Once Cyclamen flowers are pollinated the peduncle (stem) will coil to the ground where the seeds will wait to be distributed by ants in summer. The ants are tempted by the seeds sugary coating. The seeds will not germinate until the ants have eaten the sugar. Remarkably clever. Learn more about cyclamen from the Cyclamen Society website https://www.cyclamen.org/

Helleborus x hybridus
‘Ashwood Garden Hybrids’
(lenten rose)

Hellebores are probably the showiest plants of winter. Large flowers, in an array of colours, nod their heads in order to protect their reproductive organs from the elements. Hellebores do not have petals but brightly coloured sepals. The petals have evolved into nectaries and early pollinators can be seen foraging from these on mild winter days. John Massey and his team at Ashwood Nurseries have been developing and improving this genus for decades. Hellebore tours at Ashwood usually take place in late winter. See updates on their website for 2021 https://www.ashwoodnurseries.com/events/categories/hellebore-tours/

I’m very fortunate to work in a botanical garden, so I get to work amongst these wonderful plants every day. Membership to most public gardens is very reasonable, so well worth buying either for yourself or as a gift in the run up to Christmas. If you don’t have a garden or access to a public garden, take a look in front gardens, parks or even roadside plantings. Follow your nose and you might be surprised.