Top 10 plants for December: head gardener's picks
The best December flowers and foliage from winter interest plants chosen for structure, colour and texture in the garden Photographs Jason Ingram
While people's attentions often turn to Christmas festive fun in December, the garden can end up being a bit neglected. But December in the garden is actually a good time to think carefully about what your garden is doing and where it's going.
And that goes for the plants you feature in your garden too. Just because the cold and rain are taking over, doesn't mean your garden can't still bring you joy. There are plenty of plants that offer colour and structure throughout the month.
Below are my key suggestions for the best December flowers and plants for your garden, offering a range of interest from ethereal seedheads and bright blooms to peeling bark, colourful stems and fantastic foliage.
It may be cold outside but you can still get out in the garden with our advice on December gardening jobs, and more planting ideas with the experts' choice of the best winter flowers and top plants for winter colour.
The best December flowers and plants
In late spring and early summer this perennial honesty has white flowers with hints of lilac above dark-green, finely toothed leaves. During December, these elliptical seedheads –which always remind me of tiny pieces of hanging tracing paper – appear, looking stunning when backlit by the winter sunshine.
This is a plant that is best-placed at the rear of a border, so that once your perennials have died down you can enjoy these seedheads and find a new appreciation of honesty. AGM.
Height 60-90cm. Origin Europe. Conditions Fertile, well-drained soil; full sun or partial shade. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 5a-8b. Season of interest Flowering in May and June with glorious seedheads in winter.
Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’
An early 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.
Height 2.5-4m. 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.
Panicum virgatum ‘Kupferhirse’
Perhaps not the first grass many look to for winter interest, preferring instead sedges with their evergreen foliage, but a well-sited and floriferous panicum takes some beating at this time of year.
In summer it adds texture and delicacy to a border, but as the foliage begins to dry and becomes brittle, its tones are exquisite. I especially love it on those crisp, sunny December days when the light plays with the rippling foliage and the drops of moisture that collect on spent seedheads.
Height 90cm-1.2m. Origin Garden origin (species from North America). Conditions Free-draining, moisture-retentive soil; full sun. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 5a-9b. Season of interest Late summer into the winter.
Iris unguicularis 'Mary Barnard'
I’m always amazed at how tolerant of incredibly poor and sun-baked positions this species of December flowering 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 December 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.
Height 50cm. 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.
Betula albosinensis ‘Bowling Green’
If you get a chance to visit the Winter Garden at Hillier’s Arboretum in Hampshire look out for one of the most stunning specimens of this tree, which is underplanted with a carpet of Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Kokuryu’. As the bark peels away from the white trunk of this birch it takes on a cinnamon colouration that glows in the winter light.
Birch work very well in all sizes of garden, their canopies aren’t dense so they’re not too dominant, and so offer plenty of room for varied underplanting around the base.
Height 12-15m. Origin Garden origin (species from Western China). Conditions Moist but well-drained soil; full sun or partial shade. Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 6a-8b. Season of interest November – March.
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 Hellebores niger and Hellebores lividus, both of which are worth looking at in their own right.
Hellebores lividus, which has December flowers 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.
Height 50cm. Origin Garden origin. Conditions Well-drained, fertile soil; partial shade. Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 4a-9b. Season of interest Flowering from December until spring.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Robert’
This hybrid group of witch hazels is a cross between the showier Hamamelis japonica (the Japanese species) and Hamamelis mollis (the fragrant Chinese witch hazel). ‘Robert’ is a scented cultivar that can come into flower as early as December. Its apricot petals have a subtlety that is even more rewarding when discovered during the winter months.
Best placed near to a path so you can easily enjoy the subtle flowers and once the autumn colour has faded, you can remove some of the spent leaves to expose those precious December flowers. AGM.
Height 2.5-4m. Origin Garden hybrid. Conditions Moist but well-drained, fertile soil; partial shade. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 5a-8b. Season of interest December – February.
This is a fast and strong-growing willow that stands out from the fiery crowd thanks to its blue-white stem. As the season continues, wonderfully soft and tactile catkins appear on the stems before the foliage emerges in the spring. Like most shrubs grown for stem colour, a hard prune when the leaves appear will ensure the strongest colour the following winter.
To get the most impact from the stems, try to site this willow in the foreground of a dark, evergreen foil, as you’ll find the shrubs are illuminated with a dark background, making their impact all the more powerful. AGM.
Height 1.5-2.5m. Origin Southwest USA. Conditions Moisture-retentive, fertile soil; full sun. Hardiness RHS H5. Season of interest November – March.
Heuchera sanguinea ‘Geisha’s Fan’
A robust cultivar with mounds of purple-and-grey marbled foliage, persisting well into the winter. Best for the front of a border or path edge, they also work well underplanted with bulbs such as snowdrops and species narcissi.
Heucheras also make superb subjects for groundcover, especially alongside hellebores and cyclamen. If grown in containers, keep them on the dry side in the winter to deter vine weevils, which can find them irresistible.
Height 50cm. Origin Garden origin (species from western usa). Conditions Fertile, free-draining soil; partial shade. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 3a-8b. Season of interest Flowering from May with foliage interest throughout the year.
Stachyurus praecox var. matsuzakii ‘Issai’
Although, this deciduous shrub is extremely striking in early spring when it flowers, I was most taken with the subtle caramel tones of this form’s autumn foliage that lasted into December. It will flourish under the protection of a light tree canopy, but will also do well planted against a south- or west-facing wall.
The flowering buds appear in midwinter and then swell and become more pronounced as the weeks go by, building the anticipation before they finally flourish in March and April.
Height 2.5-4m. Origin Garden origin (species from Japan). Conditions Fertile, well-drained soil; a sheltered position. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 6a-8b. Season of interest Autumn foliage and flowering in early spring.
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