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Camellias are great plants for winter color, but they are a bit unpredictable where I live. Oklahoma now has winters that are sometimes more like North Carolina and further south, and other times, like northern Kansas. Our recent summers can only be described at Sahara-like. These temperature fluctuations are difficult for camellias. I am encouraged, however, by some hybridized for USDA Hardiness Zone 7A. They seem to bridge the gap for those of us in the middle south, and Camelliax 'Crimson Candles' is one I’m willing to try. It’s a fast-growing, upright cultivar with a bright pink bloom. A close friend, Frances from Fairegarden blog located in Tennessee, has grown C. Sasanqua 'Chansonette' in a dry and shady spot for twelve years. She says it never fails to bloom. Her photos are above and below.
Mahonias, being prickly members of the barberry family, are for the most part rough and tumble plants. They bloom so delightfully anywhere between February and April that everyone should consider one or two for dry shade. Mahonias are evergreen with foliage that changes color in the fall. Plus, they produce berries to attract birds. For a soft touch, choose M. eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’ because it doesn’t sport thorns on its finely textured leaves.
New to me this year is Prunus mume, Japanese apricot. J. C. Raulston loved this shrub, and at his namesake, the J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, North Carolina, grow numerous, different cultivars blooming in late winter. I’d like to grow P. mume ‘Kobai’ or the lighter pink ‘Hana-kami.’ I understand they are also fragrant, another plus.
I am a huge champion of Lonicera fragrantissima, winter honeysuckle, even though it is a very large and rather boring plant in summer. In late winter, there is nothing that smells quite like it. A friend gave me a small sprig three years ago. It has now grown to huge proportions on a side of my deck where no one ever looked. They now peer over the edge in early February because of the intoxicating scent. If you can find L. purpusii ‘Winter Beauty,’ it’s another great winter-blooming, honeysuckle, as is the later blooming cultivar ‘Spring Romance.’
Of course, there’s forsythia, but the thought of one just makes me yawn. Why not plant a witch hazel instead? Witch hazels are the heralds of February. I grow two hybrids and plan to add the native Hamamelis vernalis, Ozark witch hazel. I have H. xintermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ named after and introduced by the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University. It is a medium-sized, lemon yellow shrub – or small tree – planted at the end of a partially shaded, curving sidewalk in my front yard. It blooms in late winter/early spring. Even earlier is H. xintermedia ‘Diane.’ I’ve heard from friends living in warmer climates that ‘Diane’ doesn’t completely drop her leaves in winter. Thus, most of her blooms are sadly hidden. Here, in Oklahoma, she is leafless by January, and in February I’m rewarded with clouds of scarlet ribbons that unfurl by day and curl up at night. I’ve heard coppery ‘Jelena’ is even more beautiful. H. virginiana, another native, is heavily scented. It blooms yellow in fall. Witch hazels also have excellent fall color and will eventually grow into larger shrubs or small trees with time so take this into account before placing them in the landscape.
Many springs ago, I planted two Loropetalum chinensevar. rubrum, Chinese fringe flowers in my lower garden. One was eventually lost to an exceptionally frigid winter and poor drainage, but the other lives on. In recent years, I’ve noticed an explosion of cultivars in garden nurseries. There are now dwarf versions like Purple Pixie® to cascade down containers and darker red ones like Ever Red®.
If you can’t wait until February or March for winter blooms, plant fruiting hollies for winter color. These can be traditional hollies with pointy tipped, dark green foliage or those that are deciduous like natives American winterberry, Ilex verticillata, and possumhaw, I. decidua.All are simply lovely specimens in the winter landscape. Berry Poppins™ is a new cultivar coming out from Proven Winners® in 2013. Look for it and its mate, Mr. Poppins™ at your local garden center. Hollies need a male plant for fruit production.
We can’t stop winter from coming, but we can plant for beauty to enjoy all year long. Take a cue from any of the above shrubs, and you just might take a shine to winter too.