Not too many plants flower in winter, so it makes the cheer and hope they offer on bleak days all the more special. We’ve chosen 10 of the best, to suit a host of conditions and aesthetics
1. Light my fire
Aloe aborescens hails from south-east Africa, where it grows from the coast to the mountains. With its tell-tale succulent symmetry, the mildly spiky leaves form rosettes that with time form sizeable clumps. Because new growth hides the old, the clump always looks fresh and neat. From each rosette emerges a fiery orange raceme, which gives the candelabra aloe its popular name. This aloe is easy to propagate – break off a rosette and plant it in the sun in free-draining soil. The gel in its leaves is said to have higher concentrations of the medicinal qualities than its cousin, aloe vera, from anti-itch to anti-arthritis to anti-bacterial, you name it, this aloe has heaps of it.
2. Close to home
We know it best as mānuka, the pretty white-flowered tree that grows throughout most of the North and South Islands as a nursery species in disturbed forests. But Leptospermum scoparium also comes in a weeping, prostrate and dwarf forms, with single and double flowers in white and all manner of pinks, from pale to red. All of them are beloved by bees, flies, moths, beetles and geckos. Once established, it is tolerant of drought, waterlogging, frost, strong winds and a range of other climatic conditions, but it really does best in an open, airy site.
3. Hark and herald
Hakea laurina, known as kodjet by Australia’s Noongar people, is a small and sprawling Western Australian tree prized for its unusual, stunning, spiky, red and cream, globe-shaped flowers. About 5cm in diameter, these appear in late autumn and early winter and are popular with nectar-feeding birds, such as tūī, tauhou (waxeye and silvereye) and korimako (bellbird). Put them somewhere sunny, in free-draining soil, and protect from frost for the first couple of years, and they’re away.
4. Asian elegance
Also known as japonica or flowering quince, chaenomeles from China and Japan contains several species. Hybrids and cultivars have created an even bigger range, with blossom, either single or double blossoms coming in white through the corals and apricots to scarlet. While the shrub form ranges from semi-prostrate to tall, all have glossy, tangled, twisty, spiny stems studded, often sparingly, in winter with tight, bright buds. Small, hard, golden, fragrant fruit may follow. Larger varieties make impenetrable and attractive hedges, while the more prostrate forms exude an ikebana elegance. They like full sun or light shade – and anything in between – but the more sun, the more blooms.
5. Dear Daphne
Sweet, spicy with citrus undertones? Crisply divine? Having one of the most fragrant flowers earns this compact shrub, Daphne odora, a place in the every-garden-deserves-one category. The pretty little clusters of waxy pink and white flowers pick well, and are best grown where they can be readily appreciated, such as by a path, entrance or sitting area. Morning sun or light shade suits them best, somewhere out of the hot sun; and with perfect drainage. As it hates root disturbance, take care when transplanting from its pot into the garden. Other types of daphne are available in New Zealand, but none smells as sweet as this variety.
6. A rose by any other name
Hellebores’ common name of winter rose is clue enough to both the perennial’s beauty and its inclination to flower in the coldest time of the year. However, it doesn’t give much indication of the range of hellebores available today and their myriad colours, habits and cultivars. Not does it hint at the spread of their native lands, which traverses hefty portions of the northern hemisphere from Asia to Western Europe. All of those most readily available in New Zealand flower from late winter – and in the shade, making them a most useful and attractive low-growing plant, especially under trees or in shrubberies.
7. Sails in the shade
All cyclamens have the distinctive butterfly-like bloom held above the leaves but there are several species. Cyclamen coum is not the one commonly sold as potted houseplant. That is usually C. persicum, which can be planted outside in similar conditions to C. coum, but it does not flower in winter. Annoyingly, the plants are often sold in hardware and garden centres simply labelled cyclamen, so unless you buy from a specialist nursery it may be a matter of time seeing if what you have is C. coum. Native to the forests of Crimea across to Iran, like most cyclamen, it likes poor, well-drained soils in the shade, such as under deciduous trees – and hates heavy soils that can get waterlogged.
8. Cherry cherry
Although details of its parents and its creation are lost in time, it is known that this Japanese cherry, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’ was bred specifically to flower in winter. And what joy its clusters of pale-pink, fragrant blossom brings. When winter seems it will never end, this small tree reminds us what we can look forward to. In some regions it will flower intermittently from early winter through to early spring, and in all regions it is tree for all seasons, with its deeply serrated leaves colouring up beautifully in autumn. Being an ornamental cherry, it has no fruit.
9. Sweet as
Wintersweet or Chimonanthus praecox is a small sparse tree from China but its small waxy, almost translucent, lemon and maroon blooms emit a very big fragrance, even on the coldest of days when most other scents fail to launch. These flowers also appear just as the last of the leaves has fallen, giving the plant an unusual elegant beauty. A stem picked and brought inside will fill the room with what has variously been described as lemony, rose or hyacinth-like. However, it ignites your olfactory sensory neurons, you may agree with those who consider it the most beautiful fragrance ever. Plant one now – for they can take up to five years to flower.
10. Frozen beauty
Galanthus nivalis, aka the common snowdrop, doesn’t get much chance in New Zealand to show its special ability courtesy of a cap over the bud to push up through frozen ground and snow. One theory has it evolving to flower in winter when there is more light on the deciduous forest floors of its homeland, which comprises just about all of Europe from Russia to Spain. Also, at that time of year it can flourish without the competition of summer grasses. Tough and pretty much rabbit and deer-resistant, the snowdrop is popular with country gardeners with room to plant magnificent swathes of them. But they look just as good in smaller gardens, but don’t over nurture them – they don’t like rich soils, or drying out in summer.