Diarmuid Gavin: The best evergreens to brighten the winter months
Every season turns our attention, and appreciation, to the different qualities which plants have. In autumn we played homage to the beautiful and dazzling colours that deciduous trees display in their leaves; the fiery oranges of prunus, scarlets and crimsons of maples, rosy pink Cercidiphyllums, coppery beech leaves and yellowing birch foliage make a vivid annual tapestry.
But once the leaves have dropped and the stems are bare, our attention is drawn to the evergreens which provide much of the beauty of our winter landscapes.
So this week, I'm celebrating those plants that tough it out for winter, retaining their foliage and providing structure and interest all year round. Normally I'd include box here, but between caterpillars and disease it's suffering so much it might need chemical introduction to keep it going. However, depending on whether you require a hedge or want some topiary shapes, there are many suitable alternatives to it such as yew, lonicera, euonymus and phillyrea.
A careful selection of some choice shrubs can keep your garden alive while other plants hibernate and will provide those Instagram moments when a sharp frost or a dusting of snow creates a winter wonderland. Here's a selection to look out for - a mix of the familiar and some new twists on old favourites:
● Daphniphyllum macropodum is a large evergreen shrub whose leaves you might mistake for a rhodo. You won't get showy flowers, however, just this super elegant dark green foliage that hangs downwards to reveal bright red leaf stalks and flushed pink juvenile leaves that point upwards in spring. A real statement plant that will earn its keep.
● From our native woodland spurge to the Christmas poinsettia, Euphorbia are such a diverse family. There are also some wonderful evergreen shrubs in this family, notably Eurphorbia mellifera (pictured main) and E x pasteurii, a relative newcomer, both of which form perfect dome-shaped shrubs with whorls of leaves and delicious honey-scented flowers.
● Fatsia japonica, or castor oil, is another familiar plant but nonetheless dramatic and sculptural in winter. It does well in most soils and is particularly valuable in shady spots. There is a new introduction, Fatsia polycarpa, whose leaves are more finely shaped and will introduce an exotic feel to the shrubbery.
● Osmanthus delavayi has small dark green, serrated leaves arranged in opposite pairs, and makes a great evergreen hedging plant. Happy in the sun or shade, it does well in most soils. The real secret, however, is the gorgeous aroma from the tonnes of small jasmine-like flowers in spring. 'Heaven Scent' is a new variety worth seeking out.
● Astelia looks great throughout winter, so long as it's not in too exposed a position. It has great sword-like silver leaves that shimmer in winter sunshine. It looks as though it requires full sun, but actually it's perfect for dappled shade and brightens up dark areas. Dig plenty of humus in the soil to keep it nice and moist.
● Sarcococca, or sweet box, is a possible alternative to box, belonging as they do to the same family. The bonus here is the wonderful, sweetly scented flowers in winter and like regular box, it's happy in the shade, even tolerating dry soil. Look out for 'Winter Gem' which is a choice variety.
● Classic Buxus, known as box, is the most versatile evergreen - a hugely useful shrub, used liberally in gardens old and new throughout the world. I grow it at home and plant it in almost every project I design. It makes crisp edging for flower beds and wonderful parterre or knot gardens. It manages to be both omnipresent and posh at the same time, adorning stately homes where it's often manipulated into formal mini hedges, or sometimes humorous topiary shapes. More recently there's been a trend for pruning hedges into beautiful cloud-like formations. However, as we know, it's suffering from a plague of diseases and insects and its use is greatly in decline, with replacements such as Ilex crenata, a holly which looks very similar to Buxus sempervirens (pictured above) gaining traction. But some Buxus has escaped damage and I haven't given up on it just yet!
Never dismiss "common" plants, they are widely planted for good reason. Mahonia is one such plant, providing architectural interest with its interesting leaves and sprays of scented, lemon-yellow flowers in spring.