For many, winter is associated with bare trees and dying-back foliage. But it absolutely doesn’t need to be that way. There are plants and flowers that will bring you joy in the form of both colour and structure all year around and winter flowering plants are a key way of getting your colour fix in deepest winter. Below is a selection of winter flowering plants for a lovely, eye-catching display that will look excellent in contrast to many of the greens and browns that tend to dominate the rest of the garden at this time of the year.
Plant experts Keith Wiley, Tom Brown, John Hoyland, Andy McIndoe and Fleur van Zonnerfeld have all chosen the winter flowers they particularly love and which winter flowering plants you should be making space for over the season. Many of these are perennial winter flowering plants, so there’s very little to do here once you’ve planted your display, which should bring the same enjoyment year on year.
When to plant winter flowering plants
Always check the hardiness zone you’re in, to make sure you’re planting the right winter flowering plant for your space. Perennials and shrubs should be planted before the first frost comes, but if you’re looking to plant hardy annuals you can plant these for a significant stretch of the winter.
The best winter flowering plants
Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’
A winter flowering species of camellia that always brings me a tremendous amount of joy. Flowering well before the thrust of camellia blooms appear, its single, crimson-red flowers have a simplicity that also lends itself to many different planting styles and schemes. It’s a large shrub that benefits from a sheltered position, and if your garden is in an exposed and colder climate, try growing this plant in a container, but if you do make sure that it doesn’t dry out during the summer for a strong flowering performance. AGM. Chosen by Tom Brown
Origin Garden origin (species from Japan).
Conditions Moisture-retentive, acidic, fertile and free-draining soil; partial shade.
Hardiness RHS H4, USDA 8a-9b.
Season of interest Autumn and winter.
Iris unguicularis ‘Mary Barnard’
I’m always amazed at how tolerant of incredibly poor and sun-baked positions this species of iris can be. Often, they hug walls and enjoy a roasting during the summer and then reward us in winter with large, violet flowers that have contrasting yellow signals. Flowering in winter isn’t without its challenges, but by planting against a sunny wall, you reduce the impact of the hard frosts, which can damage the freshly emerged flowers. If flowers are hit by the frost, many more soon appear. AGM. Chosen by Tom Brown
Origin Garden origin (species from eastern Mediterranean and North Africa).
Conditions Free-draining soil; a sheltered position in full sun.
Hardiness RHS H5.
Season of interest December – February.
Helleborus x ballardiae HGC Snow Dance (= ‘Coseh 800’)
Named after the hellebore breeder Helen Ballard, this is a very exciting group of hellebores noted for their early, large and more upturned, showy flowers. They’re a cross between Helleborus niger and Helleborus lividus, both of which are worth looking at as winter flowering plants in their own right. Helleborus lividus, which can flower from December until April, is more of a challenge to grow but has exquisite, marbled foliage that makes an attractive contribution to this more robust group of hybrids. Chosen by Tom Brown
Origin Garden origin.
Conditions Well-drained, fertile soil; partial shade.
Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 4a-9b.
Season of interest Flowering from December until spring.
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. Chosen by Keith Wiley
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 winter flowering plant 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. Chosen by Keith Wiley
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.
Height 15-20cm in flower.
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 winter 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. Chosen by Keith Wiley
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 and one of my highlights among the winter flowering plants. 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. Chosen by Keith Wiley
Conditions Well-drained soil; sun.
Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 3a-8b.
Season of interest Late winter.
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 this winter flowering plant’s 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. Chosen by Keith Wiley
Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’
An evergreen daphne cultivar with leathery, mid-green leaves that is strong growing once established. Large clusters of mauve-pink flowers cover the daphne for weeks from winter into early spring. The plant’s fragrance is powerful, sweet and delicious, even on cold days. This daphne was raised at Hillier Nurseries by propagator Alan Postill and named for his wife. Height 1.8m. Chosen by Any McIndoe
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.
Height 15cm 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 over winter. 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. Chosen by Keith Wiley
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.
This winter flowering plant is part of a variable group of Cyclamen coum. The best forms have pewter (not silver) leaves that have a thin margin and central midriff of green. The flowers range from pink to deep magenta. 10cm. RHS H5. Chosen by John Hoyland
Clematis cirrhosa ‘Jingle Bells’
The first winter flowering Clematis cirrhosa cultivar to start flowering, in the autumn. Creamy yellow buds open to flowers that fade from cream to white with age. Reputedly the hardiest winter flowering Clematis cirrhosa, thriving even in cold parts of the North. Chosen by John Hoyland
Salvia confertiflora flowers until the beginning of the winter, although it’s not hardy so you’ll need to bring it inside by December. But placed in an orangery, this salvia just keeps on flowering. It offers an abundance of short, hairy, reddish-brown flowers with a hint of orange held on very long, narrow, unbranched flower stems. It can become rather woody, but if you prune it back in autumn you can force it to produce more shoots, otherwise it will be standing on very long legs. The large leaves are matt dark green and wrinkled and smell spicy. The plant is attractive to bees and butterflies. Chosen by Fleur van Zonnerfeld
Conditions Well-drained soil; full sun.
Hardiness RHS H2.
Season of interest Summer to winter.
Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’
With its bright-yellow flowers that are borne in dense, plume-like panicles on the ends of elegantly arching stems, this looks like a firework firing off in several directions. It’s an excellent addition to prairie-style planting schemes, contrasting well with grasses and asters, but it also makes a wonderful cut flower. It’s a strong grower, but not invasive, and flowers from late summer through to late autumn. By December it has finished flowering but the stems create a strong winter silhouette. Chosen by Fleur van Zonnerfeld
Origin Garden origin (species North America).
Conditions Well-drained soil; full sun and part shade.
Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 4a-8b.
Season of interest Autumn to winter.
Bidens aurea ‘Starlight’
Over the summer we’ve experimented with a number of bright-orange bidens and have only just recovered from the overwhelming bloom of Bidens triplinervia ‘Hawaiian Flare Orange Yellow Brush’. This white cultivar from the German firm Kientzler is longer flowering and even more exuberant than some of the orange bidens. It is a good filler for the front edge of the border, where the fresh green of its fine leaves and pretty little flowers merge well with the winter colour palette, but it is sensitive to frost, so perhaps better grown in a pot so you can more easily bring it inside when temperatures drop over winter. Chosen by Fleur van Zonnerfeld
Height 30cm. Origin Mexico. Conditions Well-drained soil; full sun. Hardiness RHS H3. Season of interest Summer to winter.
An incredible but tender begonia that we leave out on the terrace until quite late in the year. However, it is not at all hardy so when temperatures fall below 10°C, you’ll need to bring it inside and place it in the greenhouse or in a cool room. Its large and hairy matt green leaves have purple-red backs and look a little like elephant ears. Above these leaves, hairy and fleshy stems bend under the weight of long bunches of large, pinkish-white and red hairy flowers that bloom from July through to early December. It is a strong and disease-resistant begonia that does well in large pots. Chosen by Fleur van Zonnerfeld
Height 1.2m. Origin Brazil. Conditions Warm humid soil; part shade. Hardiness RHS H1C, USDA 10a-11. Season of interest Summer to winter.