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.

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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, as well as a few sprigs for your Christmas wreath.

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 oust in the garden with our advice on winter gardening jobs, and more planting ideas with the experts' choice of the best winter flowers. And don't miss the best gardens to visit this month.

The best December flowers and plants

Lunaria rediviva

Lunaria rediviva
© Jason Ingram

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’

Camellia sasanqua 'Crimson King'
© Jason Ingram

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’

Panicum virgatum 'Kupferhirse'
© Jason Ingram

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'

Iris unguicularis 'Mary Barnard'
© Jason Ingram

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.

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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’

Betula albosinensis 'Bowling Green'
© Jason Ingram

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’)

Helleborus x ballardiae 'Snow Dance'
© Jason Ingram

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’

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Robert'
© Jason Ingram

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.

Salix irrorata

Salix irrorata
© Jason Ingram

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.

Buy Salix Irrorata from Norfolk Quality Plants

Heuchera sanguinea ‘Geisha’s Fan’

Heuchera sanguinea 'Geisha's Fan'
© Jason Ingram

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’

Stachyurus praecox var Matsuzakii 'issai'
© Jason Ingram

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.

Indoor plants for winter

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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For all our festive content head to our Christmas hub

Authors

As head gardener at West Dean College in West Sussex, Tom Brown has an avid enthusiasm for great, garden-worthy plants. Tom is also an RHS Show Judge and Herbaceous Committee Member.

Mat Reese is head gardener at Malverleys Gardens

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