The spring displays of Siberian bugloss light up shady areas.
While many gardeners grow pulmonaria for their silver-splashed leaves and forget-me-not flowers in spring, for sheer springtime impact the smart money these days is on Siberian bugloss or great forget-me-not, Brunnera macrophylla.
These stout, clump-forming or slightly spreading deciduous perennials have heart-shaped leaves, and like pulmonaria are covered in airy sprays of long-lasting forget-me-not blossoms in shades of blue and white. Although pulmonaria come in a wider range of colours, brunnera is resistant to the mildew that blights many varieties of pulmonaria after they have peaked. In the wild brunnera comes from the Caucasus, growing in cool woods and other moist, shady places.
As a plant it has impact, especially in its silvered and variegated forms, which also look good in pots located in a shade spot, where other sun-lovers would struggle. It grows wild in the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe, growing in cool woods and other moist, shady places. Likewise in cultivation it likes cool, moist, shady conditions where it will thrive in a wide variety of soils, even heavy clay. They generally struggle in sun, where the variegated forms easily scorch, although some of the thicker leaved varieties such as ‘Silver Heart’ will tolerate stronger light as long as the soil remains moist. They are generally easy to grow and long-lived plants. To propagate them simply lift and divide in autumn.
Trim back tatty leaves in late winter before new foliage emerges and remove spent flower stems to keep the plant looking neat where it will remain a real asset in the garden.
Combinations of species have yielded varieties for almost all situations.
Recent years have seen an explosion in the range of helleborus hybrids available to gardeners. The great thing is that that careful selection has created a number of varieties of real elegance, adaptability and durability. Unlike many snowdrop varieties, most are grown commercially, usually via tissue culture, making them more widely available and easier on the wallet!
The characteristics of each parent are also represented. Besides producing a gorgeous range of long-lasting flowers, this has also boosted the ornamental qualities of their foliage, with shapely leaves and silvery patterning a characteristic of many. The habitat preferences of the parents are also embodied in the various varieties, which means they are able to thrive in situations that the run of traditional Lenten roses, or Helleborus hybridus, would not tolerate.
H. hybridus is in reality a complex race of hybrids involving five or six related species. Over time it has resulted in an astonishing range of flowers, reaching various states of doubleness and flower colours from almost black to red, yellow and peachy shades, self-coloured, or spotted or blotched, with various double or anemone forms. It prefers moist soil or even clay in semi-shade, struggling in dry soil in sun.
H. lemonnierae, developed in Germany, has produced a vigorous plant with large forward-facing flowers on tall stems, which again prefers damp soil and semi-shade, but is also good in pots. Conversely H. ballardiae, H. ericsmithii and H. nigercors have variously used shade tolerant Christmas rose H. niger with drought tolerant H. argutifolius and sun-loving H. lividus enabling them to tolerate more exposure to sun and drier soil, with H. nigricors even tolerating dry shade if watered until established. There has never been so much choice in hellebores, and now everyone can try their hand and be successful.
Fall under the spell of the charming sweet violet this spring
As winter fades and wildflowers stir into life one of the earliest blossoms to be found carpeting our woodlands, hedge banks and open grasslands with splashes of sea-blue blossom is the sweet violet, Violet odorata. It’s a low, carpeting perennial with rounded semi-evergreen leaves no more than 15cm (6in) high and although found throughout most of the UK, is possibly only native up to Westmoreland.
It luxuriates in semi-shade in moist, rich soils, particularly those which are neutral or alkaline, but it is adaptable, particularly in gardens, spreading by creeping stems or stolons and self-sown seed and can find itself an unwanted plant in lawns. Like all wild plants it has attracted the attention of gardeners who have selected interesting variants from the wild, in gardens or deliberately bred them to create different flower shapes and colours in single and double forms in blues, purple, pink and even apricot, as in variety ‘Sulphurea’. Most are sweetly scented, some more so than others, and a posy of them for a tiny vase or even an egg-cup placed on a windowsill always makes a charming feature. It was a popular plant in Victorian times, grown as a cottage-garden cut flower and used in the production of many cosmetic fragrances and perfumes until the early 20th century. Both the leaves and flowers are edible and can be added to salads to add an exciting visual twist.
Easy to grow, they are useful for under planting or associating with other spring bulbs, such as snowdrops and winter aconites, and other early shade-loving perennials such as wood anemones and pulmonaria. Grown in shallow pots or pans they can be lifted more closely to appreciate their demure charms and captivating perfume.
Recently discovered varieties are becoming more readily available
Snowdrop mania or galanthophilia shows no sign of abating. Each year eagle-eyed enthusiasts scour gardens throughout the UK and Europe on the lookout for interesting new variants of the 20 or so species and numerous hybrids of this enchanting winter garden staple.
The number of named forms in existence now runs into thousands, with the latest coveted finds often changing hands for hundreds of pounds. Internet sites such as eBay buzz with frenzied excitement as professional and amateur enthusiasts vie with each other to sell their floral treasures.
Desirable traits include size of flower, length, shape and arrangement of the inner and outer petals (tepals) and the nature of the green markings on each. While so-called ‘yellow’ types are well known, the scramble is currently on to breed different coloured forms. Named ‘pink’ and ‘apricot’ forms are starting to emerge, but as yet colours are pale or muddy, hardly living up to the description, but in time, who knows? Names are also amusing, fanciful or evocative with ‘John’s Y-fronts’, ‘Heffalump’, ‘Fatty Puff’ and ‘Ivy Cottage Corporal’ among the ranks this year.
Upshot of this activity is that the best, distinct and garden-worthy forms with inherent vigour are starting to become more widely available and cheaper after being twin-scaled, the technique that enables individual bulbs to be split to form new plants, and then grown on to be further bulked up by division. Even so bulbs can cost anywhere between £15-£30, so always buy in flower, or ‘in the green’ as divisions from reputable sources. Or why not visit a snowdrop festival or a National Garden Scheme ‘snowdrop garden’ – there are many venues taking part around the country in the next few weeks.
Beautiful, scent-filled blossoms get the season off to a flying start
At this time of year when we need uplifts of bright colour and potent scent, nothing provides them more compellingly than the hyacinth. Whether grown naturally outdoors, or forced in pots for a winter display on windowsills, their long-lasting, waxy-petalled candles of starry blossom are always an arresting site in shades of blue, red, pink, orange, violet, yellow and white. Although there are some double-flowered forms, recent breeding has concentrated on developing large, single flowers in clear colours.
In the wild, Hyacinthus orientalis inhabits rocky limestone slopes and cliffs in the eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Wild plants are sparsely flowered, a trait adjusted over at least 400 years to produce the densely flowered types we see today. In their heyday in the 18th century, more than 2,000 varieties were listed in the Netherlands, which remains the primary source of supply. They became so popular at that time that a short-lived hyacinth mania, similar to that with tulips, broke out in Holland around 1730.
The RHS undertook a trial of recent hyacinth varieties in 2012, with six receiving the Award of Garden Merit (AGM) for outstanding performance, bringing the total of AGM varieties to 15 from the 50 or so varieties generally available. The National Collection of hyacinths held by farmer Alan Shipp in Cambridgeshire currently holds in excess of 170 varieties.
Hyacinths are adaptable bulbs, preferring a well-drained soil and sun or part shade. Plant 10cm (4in) deep in autumn for flowering from mid-March. In pots, use a multi-purpose compost, with added grit or Perlite for drainage to flower from March, or earlier if you use specially prepared bulbs.
These evergreen shrubs will provide exotic, late-winter blooms
Visit any good garden centre in late January and February and you’ll often find a maroon-red leaved shrub dotted with pinky-red, tasselled, lightly-scented flowers on sale. It’s almost certainly a variety of the Chinese fringe flower, Loropetalum chinense.
In recent years this mound-forming, evergreen shrub has been gaining profile, such is the mounting interest in developing the valuable range of plants that perform in the darkest days of the year. Part of the witch hazel family Hamamelidaceae, the three species of loropetalum come from China, Japan and south-east Asia, but it’s only the Chinese species L. chinense that can be reliably grown in the UK. Fairly slow growing and not bone hardy, it generally tolerates around -5C (23F), and does best if given a spot in dappled shade or sun and sheltered from cold, freezing winds.
Like witch hazels, it prefers a moist, but well-drained, neutral or slightly acidic soil, struggling in those which dry out in summer or are constantly wet in winter. In colder climes they can also be grown in pots of ericaceous compost, brought indoors into a cool conservatory or greenhouse when the weather turns more seriously cold. Although loropetalum can achieve a height of 4-5m (13-16ft 6in) in the wild, in Britain they rarely get above 1.5m (5ft), depending on the variety, with new growth produced from summer. Selections from red-leaved form L. rubrum, with pink or red flowers, are generally seen, while the wild species has white, tasselled flowers, as found in variety ‘Carolina Moonlight’. Besides flowering in late winter, blossoms are also produced intermittently through the year. Once successfully established they need little care, so why not give one a try the next time you see them?
Bring red and orange tones to your plot with these glorious bloomers
If there’s a flowering shrub that epitomises the earliest days of a new year it’s the witch hazel, or hamamelis. These deciduous are effective all year round but especially valuable in winter, when clusters of four-petalled, ribbon-like blossoms wreath the stems. They possess a sweet scent and the long-lasting flowers can be cut and brought indoors.
The majority of varieties are produced from H. intermedia, a cross between Chinese H. mollis and Japanese H. japonica, with breeders striving to create stronger red and orange tones, or varieties with larger or longer petals and more strongly-scented flowers. They’re among the most reliable shrubs for autumn colour, in shades of yellow, orange and red.
Hamamelis prefer neutral to slightly acidic soil, that is moist, but well drained. They won’t thrive on thin, dry or chalky soils. They prefer dappled shade, but will grow in full sun, as long as the soil doesn’t dry out in summer. They’re usually expensive to buy, especially if you’re purchasing a mature-sized bush. The reason is that specific varieties are usually grafted, taking time to grow to saleable size, but once established they’ll start to grow more vigorously, creating vase-shaped, spreading or tiered forms. Often planted in small borders, they eventually outgrow available space. You can keep growth in check without compromising the flower display by cutting back new growth by half once it has grown to full size in early summer. You can also grow witch hazels in large pots or half barrels using a loam-based ericaceous compost, rather than a soil-free, multi-purpose type, or underplant with winter bulbs such as snowdrops, crocus and scilla.
This fragrant plant will be a delight and can still flower into October
Daphne are one of those essential and beautiful shrubs that everyone should try to grow for their pervasive sweet scent.
There’s nothing quite like them, flowering as they do from early in the year to early summer and beyond with newer varieties, such as ‘Eternal Fragrance’.
The scent is rich and luscious, without being cloying. They’re also diverse in habit, tall and upright, mound forming to spreading shrublets. Different species and varieties are variously evergreen, semi-evergreen to deciduous, and there are a number of variegated forms available, some brightly marked in cream or yellow.
Remember, the stronger the variegation, the less vigorous the variety will be. The fragrant flowers are distinctive, formed from clusters of small, four-petalled waxy blossoms from white to deep pink or purple. Some are greeny-yellow, while a few very of the uncommon ones are yellow.
Daphnes generally do better in neutral soil, rather than those strongly acid or alkaline, but they must have moist, but well-drained conditions. They won’t thrive in soil constantly wet, particularly in winter, or ground that dries out in summer. If using a mulch use gravel rather than organic types, as they can trap moisture around the neck of the plant. Once their deep, fleshy roots have established they’re more tolerant of drier conditions. Most require dappled shade although some, such as D. odora will tolerate full sun, as long as they don’t get too dry. They also don’t like being heavily pruned or being moved as their deep, but fairly sparse, root systems hate being disturbed. Find a good spot though, and you’ll find daphne are worth their weight in gold, or Chanel perfume at least!
Cheer up a dull or bare spot with one of these winter wonders
Any plant that flowers in winter is to be valued, but climbers that decorate bare, vertical spaces are especially welcome. Recent years have seen a number of introductions selected from winter-flowering, parsley-leaved Clematis cirrhosa. This species, from the Eastern Mediterranean, is an evergreen climber that clambers over shrubs and rocky places. Reaching 2.5m (8ft 2in) it’s ideal for training up a trellis and over an archway in a sunny, sheltered position, in any well-drained soil, where it’ll produce clusters of cream-green, maroon-freckled, scented flowers on a previous year’s growth from December onwards. The freckling is variable and coloured forms have been selected, spanning those devoid of flecking to ‘Lansdowne Gem’, which is maroon throughout.
After fading, spent heads produce silky seed tufts that last through spring. As the growth scrambles you need to keep it trained and tied in. Although it doesn’t need annual pruning keep it in check with a light shear after flowering finishes.
Other species that fill the winter gap are Clematis urophylla, another evergreen, this time from China, but one with a more expansive tendency, producing long shoots amply clad in bold leaves. Stems are hung with clusters of thick-petalled, lightly fragrant, white flowers. It prefers a sheltered position protected from the worst of the winter weather. If you’ve a sheltered, sunny nook try deciduous C. napaulensis, which produces clusters of green and purple, scented flowers, before dying back in spring, becoming dormant over summer, and starting into growth again in autumn.
These succulent houseplants create drama from both flower and foliage
Houseplants are on a wave of popularity at the moment. Among those enjoying the attention are kalanchoe; evergreen, succulent plants of incredible diversity, both in flower and foliage.
Kalanchoe comprise about 125 species found in tropical to southern Africa, more than half in Madagascar, with some in south-east Asia and China, all of which have succulent leaves and woody stems, making them drought tolerant, a useful feature of any houseplant. The most familiar is flaming Katy, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, originally from Madagascar, now bred for its clusters of long-lasting, brightly-toned flowers.
Kalanchoes are generally easy to grow, needing a minimum of 10C (50F) and bright, even light.
When growing it’s preferable to use loam-based John Innes No 1 or No 2 compost, with some extra grit or Perlite added to improve drainage, especially important in winter when plants should be kept just moist, as roots are liable to rot if kept constantly wet. From Spring increase the water and feed every month with a balanced liquid fertiliser. In summer they can be displayed outdoors in pots and containers, or planted in summer bedding schemes, where the species grown for colourful foliage will create a dramatic focal point. When in active growth bright sunlight encourages the strongest leaf colours, particularly if the plants aren’t over fed.
Propagation is easy from 5-7.5cm (2-3in) long tip, stem or leaf cuttings from spring to mid-summer. Let the cut surfaces dry off before inserting them in well-drained seed and cutting compost. There are few regular ‘go to’ sources for kalanchoe, but flaming Katy is frequently for sale from garden centres, florists and shopping malls all year round.
Try a non-traditional variety for something different
Holly is a festive favourite, with richly-berried sprigs adorning Christmas wreaths and place settings throughout the land. But there’s much more to holly than our native Ilex aquifolium.
There are more than 30 species and hybrids that can be grown in British gardens, and around 150 varieties listed by nurseries. Even our native holly has more than 60 varieties, spanning variegated and coloured-leaf forms.
Hollies are accommodating and generally easy to grow in most moist, well-drained soils. Preferring sun, they also tolerate semi-shade, but won’t fruit as productively. Although some eventually become large, they’re slow-growing when young and can be clipped or trained to size.
The main issue is the majority of holly species and hybrids are dioecious, with separate male and female parts. So to produce berries you need a compatible male plant to fertilise a number of female forms or hybrids, using the native species. If a male plant is already fairly close you won’t need to plant one, but it’s a common problem why a holly won’t fruit. Another issue is that a few varieties have confusing names. Ilex altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ is, in fact, female while I. aquifolium ‘Golden Queen’ and I. aquifolium ‘Silver Queen’ are male! A few such as I. aquifolium ‘J.C. van Tol’ are reasonably self-fertile, but always check the sex of your holly before you buy.
A winter winner for lovely flowers and foliage at this time of year
The Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, is one of those iconic plants of winter that always lifts the spirits, while marvelling at how something so beautiful and elegant can withstand the rigours of seasonal weather.
An evergreen perennial with leathery, multi-fingered leaves, the Christmas rose is found growing wild in Switzerland’s mountains, southern Germany and Austria through to northern Italy. Here, the flower colour is more variable, with purple and pink forms also known.
Preferring moist, semi-shaded conditions and alkaline soils, the Christmas rose loathes dry shade and will struggle beneath trees in dry, rooty soil.
With the advent of bringing a wider diversity of winter flowers for gardeners, it has been crossed with other species to create hybrids that are often intermediate in character and flower earlier than they would do normally, but bring pinkish, or yellowish tones and the stronger habit of the other parent species. H. nigercors is a cross with H. argutifolius (formerly H. corsicus) and H. ballardiae a marriage between H. niger and H. lividus.
Hellebore hybridists such as Hugh Nunn and his daughter Penny Dawson (www.twelvenunns.co.uk; tel: 01778590455) have created the Harvington double form, also known as ‘Harvington Petticoat’.
In recent years, Josef Heuger from Germany, has introduced the Helleborus Gold Collection, or HGC for short, with much improved flowers, earlier flowering and stronger habits. Besides being planted in borders, they can also be grown in pots.
Plant these star performers for autumnal oomph!
Iris that produce a second flush of autumnal flowers may sound like something far-fetched, but there are some varieties, particularly of bearded iris, that possess this very welcome trait.
Although no different in structure or stature to normal varieties, in autumn they produce stems from new growths that burst dramatically into bloom – just as much else in the garden is starting to wane. For maximum effect, mix them with other late-flowering plants, such as chrysanthemums, salvias or dahlias, or cut them for stunning indoor table displays.
Rebloomers, or remontant iris as they are technically known, don’t always flower reliably every year, since their ability to do this is governed by the particular variety, the weather and how healthy they are.
The new growth does not need normal winter chilling to flower, but is stimulated to do so in the cooler temperatures and moist days of autumn, and this year seems to have been good for most remontant bloomers.
With all the extra effort required, they’ll need feeding after flowering, both in spring and autumn, to build up their energy to bloom again. Use a high-potash fertiliser and work it into the soil around the exposed rhizomes.
The rhizomes should be lifted, divided and young rhizomes replanted every three to four years in July, but it may take a few months for them to re-establish and rebloom again.
Use these shrubs for their welcome winter flowers, fruit and foliage
Viburnums are one of the workhorse shrubs of the garden and while most flower from late spring into early summer, there are some that really make an impact in winter. Besides flowers, viburnums also contribute with colourful and long-lasting fruit and decorative foliage, with evergreen species such as Viburnum tinus making an important visual contribution in winter, while also making a useful hedge.
Although mostly white, or pale pink, the individual small flowers of viburnum are massed into clusters or globular heads with many, particularly those that are winter flowering, also possessing a sweet or musky scent. After the flowers many produce attractive berries in shades of red, yellow and black to metallic blue. Starting in autumn, some like the guelder rose, V. opulus, continue to shine into winter.
Viburnums are adaptable when it comes to the soil they are placed in, as long as they’re not waterlogged or excessively dry. They will tolerate sun through to full shade, although their flowering performance will be hampered if conditions are continually gloomy.
V. opulus and V. tinus are prone to attacks by the creamy, black-spotted larvae and adults of viburnum beetle, which can skeletonise foliage. Use organic insecticides containing pyrethrins and fatty acids when grubs are seen in spring, but stop spraying when plants are flowering to protect pollinators.
These plants will provide cheer throughout autumn and winter
Camellias are among the most aristocratic evergreen shrubs, with lustrous leaves and bold, wax-textured flowers in an astonishing range of shapes and forms. While most flower from January through to spring, there are species, hybrids and varieties that lighten shortening days with blossoms through autumn into Christmas.
Many of these are C. sasanqua, from China and Japan, while others come from the fragrant Chinese tea oil C. oleifera or the hybrids C. hiemalis and C. vernalis.
While many are hardy, others, such as varieties of C. oleifera, may need more winter warmth and shelter, particularly in colder gardens. They’re all easily grown in pots of ericaceous compost, which can be brought into a glasshouse or conservatory over the coldest months or, if durable, left outside on the patio all year. Pot cultivation not only provides winter protection, it also helps restrict size and spread, further reduced via light pruning.
Camellias need acid to neutral, moist, but well-drained soil. If they become chlorotic, or yellow-leaved, or are in thin, chalky soils of PH7 and above, growing in pots is best. While they’ll withstand winter sun they need to be kept out of strong sunlight in summer. They also need to be kept moist, particularly in summer when flower buds are being set. Use rainwater wherever possible and feed with ericaceous liquid feed in spring. If plants start to outgrow their space lightly trim back errant shoots immediately after they finish flowering.
This month is your last chance to plant an exotic spring display
Tulips are among the most iconic spring blossoms, with colours and shapes that far out-dazzle many other seasonal bulbs. They also have a long season from early April through into May but, of the 15 different forms of tulips, the late varieties are particularly useful in providing a crucial floral bridge of colour as warming weather accelerates the garden towards summer.
It’s also a season that can be difficult, as it’s often windy and wet, but late varieties generally have larger blossoms and stout stems that enable them to resist inclement weather. There are also many early-flowering perennials and shrubs to combine their exotic presence with. Their longer stems mean they can be planted among emerging perennials, such as lupins, to over-top them, or among roses that are bursting into leaf.
Although there’s a particular class of tulip called Single Late, which is derived from the oval Darwin and cottage garden types, there are also late-flowering varieties of other classes, such as fringed, lily-flowered and parrot, which collectively compose late forms, so it’s down to you to select the types you need from plant catalogues. Plant bulbs 2-3 times deeper than their height and twice their width apart in moist, well-drained soil in full sun. These types of tulip bulbs are usually discarded after flowering, as they don’t persist year to year, but you can lift the bulbs after the foliage has died back, dry them off and replant the following autumn.
These oriental favourites are just oozing with autumnal appeal
Appreciated in Britain for around 200 years, the deciduous Japanese maple Acer palmatum, in its best forms really comes into its own with spectacular autumn tints and colourful winter shoots. Relatively slow growing, shade tolerant with more than 1,000 varieties, this shrub or small tree can be grown in pots or in borders no matter what size of garden you have. The thin, elegant leaves have an incredible range of shape and form, from highly dissected to bold, simple outlines, further expanded through a range of tints and variegations that restrict vigour, further helping keep these decorative varieties small and compact. Equally fascinating, growth habits can be light and airy, dome-shaped, tiered to stiff and architectural.
Native to damp, shady forests of Japan, China and Korea, the tree is highly variable, and has been selected by Japanese gardeners for hundreds of years. It’s an important component of Japanese gardens, often shaped and clipped as an accent tree around a house. Shallow-rooted and easily trained, it became an important subject for traditional bonsai and other creative miniaturising techniques. Japanese maples were first introduced into the UK in 1820, when the country first opened to Western trade and quickly entranced gardeners in Europe, which they still do today. They prefer moist, organic, woodland soil in semi-shade, the foliage is easily crisped if allowed to dry out in full sun. In pots its best to use a general-purpose compost, with added John Innes, rather than heavy, loam-based types. Site pots in a shady spot and keep them regularly watered.
They’re not just for Hallowe’en and come in all shapes and sizes!
Pumpkins probably provide the most unusual late splashes of colour in the vegetable garden. Amid the decaying foliage can be found an astonishing array of outlandish fruits that sit on the soil like an elephant’s discarded gem stones. Besides enthralling adults, they’re also a delight for children and an effective way to get them growing plants, if only for the thrill of creating their own Hallowe’en lanterns. Many make good eating too, although we’re still getting to grips with cooking pumpkins in the UK.
Pumpkins have no specific botanical status and are just a type of winter squash, largely derived from Cucurbita pepo, although some of the larger types come from C. maxima. They originate from North America and are widely grown commercially for food as well as decoration, with some types being useful for both. It’s amazing that just one or two species can generate such an incredible range of fruit, of different sizes, shapes and textures from around the world. Pumpkins grow on vigorous spreading or clambering tender annual vines, which can make 1.8m (6ft) or more, taking up quite a bit of space, so are best grown on a bit of vacant land or on an allotment, rather than the treasured vegetable plot. Seeds are usually planted singly in pots under glass or on a windowsill in May, then grown on and hardened off for planting out in rich garden soil in June after the last frosts. Keep your plant watered and fed throughout the summer and help pollination by transferring pollen from bloom to bloom with a paintbrush. If you want to grow a giant just keep one or two fruit and cut back stems, removing other fruit once your chosen fruit starts swelling.
These dainty species are far more hardy than their houseplant cousins
Dainty, nodding flowers of wild cyclamen are a welcome sight in gardens, coming as they do from late summer and late winter into spring. Of the hardy species and forms, they’re one of those plants that once established you can almost forget. You’re only reminded of their presence when they awake from dormancy to enchant you with delicate flowers, patterned and shapely foliage and, in some species and forms, a delicious, sweet scent.
Cyclamen are low-growing, deciduous to semi-evergreen, tuberous plants found throughout the Mediterranean, to southern Europe, North Africa, east into Syria, Lebanon and Iran. They variously inhabit short grassland, rocky outcrops to open woodland glades, making many species usefully shade tolerant. Some, such as C. hederifolium and C. coum, are able to thrive among tree roots, a notoriously difficult situation for gardeners to deal with. With species flowering at different times of the year, particularly late summer into autumn and mid-winter into spring, you can have a succession of blooms from cerise, through to pale pink and white.
They’re highly variable from seed, and nurserymen have selected forms with interesting leaf patterns or flower colours. Pot-grown plants can be planted any time, while dry corms will be seasonally available. Corms don’t need burying, but planted so they’re level with or just proud of the soil. If growing in pots, use a mix of multi-purpose and John Innes, with additional sharp grit for drainage.
Plant bulbs in the coming weeks and you’ll have Christmas flowers
The huge, fleshy-rooted bulbs of hippeastrum are available in garden centres right now. These are one of the indoor pleasures of deep winter, producing trumpet flowers on stout stalks. Being almost guaranteed to flower, they make excellent gifts.
Hippeastrum, often erroneously known as amaryllis, come from South America. The first to be hybridised were H. reginae and H. vittatum by a Lancashire watchmaker in 1799, who gave plants to Liverpool’s Botanic Garden. More hybrids followed as more species were introduced. Breeding then moved to the Netherlands and the USA in the late 19th and 20th centuries, then to South Africa and latterly to Japan, India, Brazil and Australia.
The traditional, large-flowered types come in a range of colours, from vermillion-red, through shades of pink, orange and salmon tones to pure white, streaked or striped. Double-petalled forms have been bred with similar patterning. Other colours, such as pale yellow and lime have started to appear, largely through the use of species such as the butterfly hippeastrum H. papilio and narrow petalled H. cybister. Unfortunately very few hybrids are scented.
Plant bulbs six to eight weeks from the date you want them to flower, which means November if you want them in bloom for Christmas. Plant in a pot 5-7½cm (2-3in) wider than the bulb, leaving two thirds of the bulb exposed. Use a general-purpose compost or John Innes No 2, firm and water in. The bulb will produce a flower stem first, followed by strap-shaped leaves. After flowering, remove the spent stem. Keep the bulb moist and fed until late summer, then keep cool 15-18C (60-65F), allow the leaves to dry, then repot and start the cycle again.