James Dean and shrubs and trees that bloom in winter.

When I teach my students how to identify and use landscape plants (HORT 3030), I occasionally mention the comedian Rodney Dangerfield. When I introduce them to fall-flowering plants, I tell them that these plants don’t get any respect. This Rodney Dangerfield metaphor epitomizes a collection of plants that are often overlooked in the nursery or garden center bySpring fever-stricken folks. “You’re doomed without blooms” is the credo of plant merchandisers. These delectable fall-bloomers with flowers that may be fragrant and inconspicuous–holly tea olive, Fortune’s osmanthus, fragrant tea olive–or bodacious and aromatic like Japanese fatsia, remain unnoticed in the garden center. They’re upstaged by sumptuous flowers of a multitude of spring-blooming shrubs and trees that include azaleas, dogwoods, and deutzias.

Fall-blooming shrubs and trees don’t get any respect. What about plants that bloom in the winter? Despite the everpresent danger of losing their flowers to freezing temperatures, these stalwart plants bloom with attitude. These James Dean plants (yes, I know I further alienate myself from younger generations) display a devil-may-care attitude with gorgeous—sometimes even fragrant—flowers.

From fall through winter I enjoy the semidouble pink flowers of autumn-flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’).  Expect the largest floral display in early spring before the leaves emerge.

In late January and February I imbibe the spicy sweet-smelling blooms of Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume). This tree was one of the late J .C. Raultson’s favorite trees. Over 300 named cultivars offer single or double flowers in white through shades of pink to red.

The most famous winter-blooming trees are the many cultivars of Japanese camellias. Rightfully they’ve earned the nickname of “winter rose.” While only a few cultivars are endowed with fragrance, we appreciate them for their eye-candy blooms:  beautifully sculpted flowers that defy the imagination.

Chimonanthus praecox

Fragrant wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) in bloom.

A species in bloom right now is wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). Avoid gazing at its gaunt leafless constitution and admire the attractive thimble-sized pale yellow flowers with purple centers. The fragrance has been described as lemony and spicy. To me, the flowers smell like lemon-scented furniture polish.

Witchhazels offer an entertaining floral display in winter:  their spiderlike flowers are comprised of four straplike petals that look like strands of confetti which have exploded from the bud.  Among the best choices for the garden are the hybrids between the Asian species (Hamamaelis  x intermedia).  These produce the showiest flowers and become multistemmed shrubs ranging from 6 to 15 feet high.  My favorites among the two dozen cultivars include ‘Arnold Promise’, ‘Jelena’, ‘Primavera’; and ‘Ruby Glow’.

Finally, I’m looking forward to seeing and smelling the extremely fragrant creamy-yellow flowers of paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha). After it blooms in midwinter, bold, tropical-looking leaves emerge in the Spring from this uncommon deciduous shrub.

I am a big fan of winter-flowering shrubs and trees that can only be appreciated in the dead of winter and on their own terms. They provide me with a brief escape to my happy place away from the short, cold days of winter.

Bob Polomski (c) 2015


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