We had a witch hazel flowering very early this autumn. I think it may have been the American Hamamelis virginiana which flowers just as the leaves fall. In the main, hamamelis flower for up to six weeks on bare branches, their fragrant, spidery flowers giving an instant lift to the heart in the dark winter months. Hybridisation between the Japanese and Chinese varieties has led to a succession of lovely plants such as Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane' which has particularly distinctive deep red flowers. This plant has the added bonus of an autumn display of red and yellow foliage. Chris Lane at the Witch Hazel Nursery, Newington, nr. Sittingbourne, Kent holds a National Collection of Witch Hazel and it is well worth a visit up there on one of his Open Days. I remember going with a gardening group from London some years ago now and although most of us were pretty intrepid as far as anything to do with plants were concerned, wow, it was cold on that day and the wind blew, but despite the vagaries of the weather we could still appreciate the hamamelis fragrance (and Mrs. Lane's cake!). Visiting gardens like Wakehurst Place, RHS Wisley, the Cambridge Botanic Garden and Anglesey Abbey, all of which have winter gardens, provide inspiration and ideas about which plants come into their own in the winter.
The bright stems of cornus and salix look fabulous with the winter sun streaming through them and a grouping of plants with similar coloured stems like perhaps the bright orange stemmed Salix alba 'Chermesina' and Cornus stolonifera var. flaviramea look good together. Both willows and dogwoods have stems in a wide range of colours from yellows, oranges, lime greens, purples and through to black. These are cut back in the spring as the new growth provides the vivid colour for the following winter. Ditto the white stemmed rubus - either biflorus, cockburnianus or thibetanus which make quite a show. R. cockburnianus has tall arching stems which are a blue white like glacier mints. You can underplant these shrubs with ground cover which has contrasting leaves. I rate bergenias (particularly B. 'Sunningdale' as its big leaves are a beautiful mahogany underneath) and B. 'Bressingham White' is good as its pure white bell-like flowers are a treat in the spring. Under plant for winter interest with masses of winter aconites which are a particularly good food source for any passing bees as are bulbs such as crocus, scillas, muscari and of course, snowdrops. Evergreen coloured grasses grown as ground cover, such as Carex buchananii and Carex flagellifera, add contrast and form, too, as do pulmonarias such as Pulmonaria saccharata 'Leopard' which is a particularly good form with heavily spotted over-wintering leaves. Trees which are often grown for their decorative bark include acers such as Acer capillipes, the snake bark maple, Acer griseum which has papery peeling bark in shades of cinnamon and Prunus serrula, another introduction by Ernest Wilson.
There is a great specimen of the latter at RHS Wisley at the top of Battleston Hill to the left of the giant white sculpture, if that's what it is, at the top of the hill. This tree's bark is incredibly tactile, and it gleams in the sunshine. Another combination which works well at Cambridge is the fine form of Arbutus unedo 'Rubra' underplanted with the decorative, silver-leaved Hedera helix 'Glacier'. The hybrid Arbutus x andrachnoides has cinnamon red limbs and is perfect for the winter garden too. There is a short row of them growing as street trees in the Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea and despite the fact that they are not growing particularly well there, the colouring and texture of their branches are lovely. I suspect that they may have been chosen specifically for this stretch of pavement as they line the wall to the Chelsea Physic Garden. These were first pointed out to a group of us by Roy Lancaster during an afternoon when we caused much consternation to the Chelsea residents whose little front gardens he led us in and out of, like a horticultural Pied Piper, whilst extolling the virtues of this tree and that shrub as we went. You really don't forget an enthusiastic and extraordinarily knowledgeable teacher.
And fragrance... winter fragrance needs to be strong to entice insects... the Christmas box or Sarcococca is a good one for this. They take a while to get going but are well worth the wait. They combine so well with plantings of hellebores and groups of snowdrops. Their combination of perfectly formed evergreen leaves and tiny white flowers, both male and female, produced up the stems are wonderful. Two forms, S. orientalis, which has pink tinged male flowers and S. ruscifolia var. chinensis 'Dragon Gate' were introduced to this country by Roy Lancaster in 1980. I prefer Sarcococca confusa which is easy to source and grows into an elegant shape. It is often confused with S. ruscifolia but has very fragrant male flowers followed by black rather than dark red berries. A small twig of this brought into a warm house provides waves of an intense fragrance. Shrubs like mahonias and honeysuckles like L. fragrantissima and L. x purpusii provide winter fragrance, too, and of the viburnums, Viburnum x bodnantense 'Charles Lamont' and V. 'Dawn' are two that have sweetly scented flowers which begin their display as early as October and then on into the winter. The sun is obviously very low and often in short supply during the winter months and it was interesting to discover that the Cambridge Botanic Garden's winter garden was designed as a shallow valley in such a way as to ensure that the plants should have as much access to south-facing sun as possible and thus enhancing the effect the low sun creates when combined with coloured barks, stems and contrasting ground cover foliage. And, of course, any warmth created on those precious sunny winter days also encourages flowering, intensifies scent and persuades insects to make their brave forays out to start the whole cycle off again.