February doesn’t have to be bare in the garden. Here plantsman Keith Wiley chooses flowers for February which are worth planting to ensure colour, structure and more.
Iris unguicularis ‘Peloponnese Snow’
Hardy or near hardy, winter-flowering iris are not thick on the ground, and this one is the standout selection of a species that has filled this gap. The more-often seen cultivars are various shades of lilac-blue, which may or may not have much scent and can be reluctant to produce many flowers. By contrast the beautifully marked white flowers of ‘Peloponnese Snow’ are not only strongly scented but are also produced prolifically for several months. Worth watching out for slugs eating the soft flower stems and flowers.
Conditions Well-drained soil; sun in preferably a sheltered spot.
Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 7a-9b.
Season of interest Evergreen clump flowering winter through spring.
Named after Henrik Zetterlund, of Gothenburg Botanical Garden, who has done so much to bring this genus to the attention of gardeners. This species was found growing on north-facing screes and well-drained limey soils and only named in 1990. Like so many of the genus this one merits close inspection. It will not shout out its presence from its lowly stature, but grow it with the smaller snowdrops, early species crocus and Iris reticulata and a jewel-like tapestry will emerge. A spring ephemeral for a raised bed or rockery retreating below ground soon after flowering.
Height 15-20cm in flower.
Conditions Well-drained soil; sun or shade.
Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 5a-8b.
Season of interest Late winter to early spring.
Daphne ‘Spring Beauty’
Purely in terms of scent the best species of late winter-flowering daphnes are Daphne bholua and Daphne odora. With less fragrance, but greater flower power, this cultivar (bred by Robin White) is a hybrid between Daphne bholua and the supposedly tender Daphne sureil, which ensures it is later flowering and produces masses of pink flowers. Best planted where the morning sun will not reach it while the plant is still frozen after a cold night. Has proved hardy here at Wildside, which is similar to much of southern England.
Origin Garden origin (both parents are Himalayan).
Conditions Fertile, well-drained soil; sun or part shade.
Hardiness RHS H4, USDA 7a-8b.
Season of interest Evergreen shrub flowering late winter to early spring.
Formerly known as Crocus herbertii, this is wonderful growing alongside Corydalis henrikii (see above) and one of my highlights among the winter flowering bulbs. The most intense orange flowers spring from the smallest crocus bulbs I have ever seen. It is a stoloniferous species spreading by underground stems to produce an ever increasing colony of small, grassy leaves when settled, which in my experience can take several years to happen. Seeing these spears of orange emerge so early in the year is a thrill of which I will never tire. Does need small companions, I grow it with low-growing, early grape hyacinths and some of the smaller snowdrops.
Conditions Well-drained soil; sun.
Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 3a-8b.
Season of interest Late winter.
A low-growing daphne that will cover itself in scented yellow flowers for months in late winter. The scent is elusive as I get very little but for others it is glorious. I cannot pretend it is the easiest daphne to grow, needing, as all daphnes do, a well-drained soil but in part shade. I grow mine in a bed under cover but open on all sides. Unusually, it goes dormant after flowering, dropping its leaves through the summer, before making new growth in the autumn. Beware slugs eating the new flowerbuds at this time.
Origin Northern Japan and eastern Russia.
Conditions Well-drained soil; part shade.
Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 7a-9b.
Season of interest Second half of winter.
Pieris formosa var. forrestii ‘Jermyns’
One of my top ten shrubs for winter effect, although you’ll need a non-limey soil to grow it. Its red flower buds are very good for flower arranging, and the colder the weather the more intense the red colour of these buds becomes. From these, white, heather-like, bell-shaped flowers open in spring, and these are best removed after flowering to improve flowering the following year. If you forget it may flower only every other year. Striking purple-red young foliage will follow if frosts permit.
Height Up to 3m.
Origin Garden selection (species native to southwest Asia and Himalayas).
Conditions Ericaceous soil; sun or part shade.
Hardiness RHS H4, USDA 5a-8b.
Season of interest Spring/early summer for new foliage; all winter for flowerbuds.
Height Up to 3m.
This species always wins the race to be the first erythronium in flower, but as you might expect from a plant that produces flowers so early, it is easily spoilt by bad weather. Strong winds are its main enemy so it is best positioned in a sheltered, semi-shady spot. Given a spell of good weather this species is a joy – a little like a refined Erythronium dens-canis but with superb mottled leaves and yellow, rather than blue, anthers. Very slow to increase with me, seed offering the best option, so grow under cover or protect the plants with a cloche if you want seed.
Height 15cm in flower.
Origin Western and central Caucasus.
Conditions Woodsy soil; part shade.
Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 3a-9b.
Season of interest Late winter to very early spring.
A beautiful hoop-petticoat daffodil that increases by bulb division satisfyingly quickly. I have not noticed it setting seed so it stays where you plant it. This cultivar is rather like a vigorous, larger flowered version of the similar Narcissus bulbocodium var. citrinus, and both have thin, sedge-like leaves. The latter species would definitely make my top ten spring bulbs because it will seed itself around, creating drifts of lemon-yellow flowers that will emerge through anything low-growing enough to allow them to do so, including thin grass. A wonderful naturalising bulb.
Height 20cm in flower.
Origin Garden origin (species from southern Europe).
Conditions Most soils; sun.
Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 6a-9b.
Season of interest Early spring.
Height 20cm in flower.
In effect a pure-white primrose with a yellow eye that will flower for months giving pools of white in the woodland garden. My experience with primrose cultivars (I have grown very many over the years) is that quite a few of them fade away without you really realising they have disappeared. One of the joys of ‘Gigha’ is its willingness to stay alive without regular division or undue pampering. It can self-seed but it hasn’t done so with me. Like all woodlanders though it will respond favourably if annually mulched and fed.
Origin Thought to come from the Isle of Gigha off the coast of Scotland.
Conditions Moist but well-drained soil; full sun to part shade.
Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 3a-9b.
Season of interest Late winter to spring.
Known as the five-leaved cuckoo flower, this is a flower that has many obvious similarities to our native Cardamine pratensis, but the colour is stronger in this species and it is easily the first of these perennial types to flower, being a real harbinger of early spring. The five-lobed foliage – hence its name – which comes after the flowers is handsome and makes a nice carpet for several months until it dies down in the summer. It will create quite a dense patch and will spread when happy. Grows in shade of all sorts but you will find that it will flower much better if you give it an annual mulch to feed it.
Height 25cm in flower.
Origin From Romania to Iran.
Conditions Most soils; full or half shade.
Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 6a-8b.
Season of interest Early spring for flowers.