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Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'
Photo: Jason Ingram

Best plants for winter colour in December

Published: December 8, 2021 at 3:11 pm

For colour and interest in the depths of winter, here's our list of recommended plants for the home and garden, including colourful flowers, evergreen shrubs and ghostly grasses. Words by Matthew Reese, photos by Jason Ingram

Winter in the garden is tricky. Plants left outside need to be hardy and hard-working so you get the most out of them, while everything else in the garden is waiting for spring to return. It does, however, allow you to turn your attention to indoor plants and tropical plants that require your care and attention undercover.
This selection of plants includes a mix for winter days, including a fiery flowering witch hazel that not only offers colour but structural interest too; a Mahonia shrub and Miscanthus grass, both celebrated for their interesting foliage; and indoor plants including bulbs and two orchids suited to those gardeners who like a challenge.
So here's our top pick of flowers and foliage for the keen winter gardener.

Indoor plants for winter

1

Hippeastrum 'Grand Diva'

For flower power, there are few plants that come close to Hippeastrum indoor bulbs, commonly known as amaryllis. ‘Grand Diva’ is a wonderful selection that produces huge, vivid-red, funnel-shaped flowers, with four to five blooms per stem.

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Plant the bulbs in a heavy clay pot and firm enough soil around the bulb to ensure it does not become dislodged under the weighty inflorescence. Heat is important to initiate growth. Keep the compost moist, but not too wet, until the roots have formed and the flower stem emerges. Water and feed as the foliage is produced and stop in August to let the bulb ripen.

Height 50cm. Origin Garden origin. Conditions Any soil. Hardiness RHS H1B. Season Late winter into early spring.

2

Narcissus papyraceus

Paper-white narcissi are among the easiest bulbs to force for indoor Christmas displays. The key is to ensure that they have at least a few weeks in a cold frame to establish a good root system before trying to force them. The tazetta blooms are glistening white, held in loose clusters and produce a very powerful scent. The scent can become cloying, and they are best used in a large room or porch. Stake with a split cane and tie in the stems and leaves with raffia – one at a lower tier to take in the foliage, and then again just below the flowers.

Height 40cm. Origin Mediterranean. Conditions Any soil. Hardiness RHS H4, USDA 4a-8b. Season Late winter into early spring.

For a truly floral winter, check out our tips and wider selection of indoor bulbs for growing and forcing.

3

Cymbidium hybrid

The Cymbidium hybrids are some of least demanding orchids. The large flowers, held on arching spikes, normally have a decorative lip and last over two months. In spring, place outside in a sheltered position in light shade. Water in the morning with a general purpose, 20-20-20 feed.

Flowers form from early October and will continue through the winter months. Before the cold sets in, put the plants back into the greenhouse or windowsill with daytime temperatures close to 20°C and 10°C at night. Protect from molluscs if necessary.

Height 1m. Origin Garden origin. Conditions Specialist orchid compost; overwinter inside; dappled shade outside. Hardiness RHS H1A. Season Winter into early spring.

4

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'
Photo: Jason Ingram

This is a lovely witch hazel for the winter garden. In December, ravelled trusses of dainty, ribbon-petaled flowers of yellow suffused with burnt orange are produced from stark, leafless twigs. The flowers, although small, are tolerant of winter weather and will continue well into January. The scent is good, and it is worth picking a sprig to bring indoors for your Christmas wreath, although the flowers will not last long in the heat.

‘Jelena’ has exceptional autumn colour with leaves turning fiery red and orange. Plant in neutral to acidic soil that doesn’t get too dry in summer, and prune after flowering only when necessary.

Height 4m. Origin Garden origin. Conditions Any soil, neutral to acidic, not water logged. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 5a-8b. Season Autumn and winter.

5

Picea orientalis

Helleborus niger

This selection from Harvington Hellebores has bloomed before Christmas for the past few years and produces little vignettes of sumptuous, white flowers, each blossom centred with a cluster of golden stamens.

Although they have a reputation for requiring a limy soil, mine have been thriving in stony, humus-rich, acidic soil for some years. They do take time to establish, resent disturbance, and hate sitting wet. They’re also gross feeders, meaning they are hungry plants and so need to be fed annually with compost.

Height 25cm. Origin Garden origin. Conditions Any soil that does not sit wet; shade. Hardiness RHS H7. Season Winter into spring.

6

Camellia x vernalis 'Yuletide'

A chance hybrid between C. japonica and C. sasanqua that arose in a Californian nursery. It is a very welcome presence in the depths of winter, making a bushy, evergreen shrub covered in polished foliage and has brilliant-red flowers, each with a golden central boss.

Plant in a sheltered position that receives some sun during the summer months in order to promote flowering. It does well in a pot, providing it is fed with a good camellia fertiliser. It can suffer in the coldest gardens, but will make a good plant for city gardens providing the soil is lime-free.

Height 2.5m. Origin Garden origin. Conditions Any good acidic soil; some sun. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 7a-10b. Season Winter.

7

Mahonia x media 'Winter Sun'

An extraordinary foliage plant that has a presence in the garden through the year. The distinctive, glossy roundels of prickly, pinnate leaves sit atop thick, corky stems, and make a nice addition to the garden tapestry.

In December, ‘Winter Sun’ produces dense clusters of ascending flower spikes, each composed of small, bright-yellow blooms. The flowers are sweetly scented and last into January. Mahonias can become a little ungainly and need to be pruned to prevent them from getting too willowy. Prune in the spring by removing a third of the old wood. AGM.

Height 3m. Origin Garden origin. Conditions Any soil. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 6b-9b. Season Winter.

8

Miscanthus sinensis 'Morning Light'

A subtly variegated grass that makes an upright fountain of foliage during the summer. I grow it as a single specimen and contrast it against perennials and shrubs. As summer colours dissolve in winter, the beauty of decay comes to the fore and browns become more important in the garden.

This grass keeps its structure as the foliage dries and tightens into a column of straw-coloured leaves that persist into spring. Cut it hard down the ground in spring, and split every three years to maintain vigour.

Height 1.5m. Origin Garden origin. Conditions Any soil. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b. Season Early summer to late winter.

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For more winter interest suggestions, check out our experts' picks of winter-flowering plants and a head gardener's top 10 plants for December.

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