Diarmuid Gavin: Bright spots from the Far East for your garden
These vibrant plants from the Far East will cheer up any garden in the cold months
I was traveling through Europe last week, visiting plant nurseries to pick some large specimens for a couple of gardens we are creating. In a nursery near Bruges in Belgium, I was examining some wonderful topiary bay trees, regimented columns of green, when a whiff of sweet perfume arrested my progress.
Following my nose I discovered a magnificent witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis) growing in the shelter of a walled courtyard. It made me realise when little else is happening in the doldrums of February, there are some special shrubs to tempt and seduce us. So, the plants I'm discussing this week are as beautiful as any that you'll discover in your garden during any part of the year. All hailing from the Far East, they have in common delicate flowers, beautiful fragrance and are suitable for smaller gardens, as their eventual height and spread is around 5 to 6 feet.
First up is Edgeworthia chrysantha, native of the Himalayas and China. It's more commonly known as the 'Oriental Paperbush' as its papery bark is used for making high quality paper. Japanese bank notes used to be made from this paper and were renowned for being difficult to forge.
Fragrant tubular yellow flowers emerge from silky white buds, forming clusters of creamy yellow spheres on bare stems. It's not commonly grown, so it's perfect if you're looking for something a bit out of the ordinary. Grow in moist, well-drained soil, ideally in a sheltered position as it doesn't like to go below -5˚C. If your garden is prone to hard frosts, consider growing in a pot in a cool conservatory instead, or against a sunny south-facing wall. Even more striking, perhaps, is the cultivar 'Red Dragon' - equally fragrant but with orange-reddish flowers.
We're all familiar with the dazzling yellow forsythia that bursts into bloom in spring. But there's a much quieter white forsythia, Abeliophyllum distichum, which will delight you with its almond-scented, delicate white or very pale pink flowers. Again, these deliciously fragrant flowers are borne on bare branches midwinter. It also may need some winter protection in colder areas or you could plant one from the 'Roseum' group, which has pink flowers and is hardier. Plant in full sun in a sheltered position, near an entrance or pathway where you get the full benefit of its winter scent. Native to Korea, it is an endangered species in the wild and close to extinction, so it needs to be treasured.
Then of course, the 'Chinese witch hazel' or Hamamelis mollis (above), which caught my attention in Belgium. The bark and leaves contain an astringent which is harvested for skin and beauty products. This makes a lovely specimen in a pot on your patio, combined with some early spring bulb under-planting. It can then be moved "back stage" in the garden during summer when it looks more ordinary. Slender strap like yellow petals contain a sweet fragrance.
It's a parent to many cultivars which have different coloured flowers, for example 'Jelena' has coppery orange petals and 'Diane' wonderful red flowers. However, for the best fragrance I think the original is best. It prefers neutral to acidic soil but generally does well if the soil is humus rich and well-drained. It won't thrive on a shallow, chalky soil and will do much better if sheltered from cold harsh winds.
And it's not only these wonderful shrubs which produce such scintillating scents. I've just noticed a cheerful post on Instagram from Weekend's excellent restaurant reviewer, Katy McGuinness. It's a bunch of gorgeous blue hyacinths (below) with the caption that says that their perfume has filled up the whole house!
With all of these winter beauties - whether outside or inside - it's a good idea to locate them where you can see them from the house, or better still, near a path or front door so that you get to smell them every day!