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Early Spring Flowers
by Dion Litavniks, Saanich GARDENWORKS
March 1, 1997

We are very fortunate to live on the West Coast, where we can enjoy fragrant winter-blooming shrubs. My favourite, sweet box (Sarcococca humilis), not only has a fragrance reminiscent of gardenias but also thrives in the shade. This low-growing evergreen shrub grows to about a foot (30 cm)tall and spreads by underground suckers, making it a great small hedge. The tiny fragrant blooms are produced between the shiny green leaves in late winter. Taller forms of this plant are Sarcococca confusa and S. ruscifolia, which grow 3 feet by 3 feet(90 cm by 90 cm), filling any shady corner.

Another fragrant shade plant is Skimmia japonica. It is better known for its brilliant red berries, but in winter the female plants produce round clusters of very fragrant blooms. The male form produces larger blooms than the female, but does not produce berries. It is, however required in order to pollinate the female plants, which in turn will produce berries for fall display. One male can pollinate about seven females. If you're short on space, try Skimmia reevsiana, which is a self-pollinating form. All the skimmias have lustrous aromatic leaves and grow into rounded bushy shrubs.

The queen of winter fragrance is February daphne (Daphne mezereum). This deciduous shrub will brighten any gloomy winter day with its long stems of purplish-pink blooms. The bare, upright, 4 foot (120 cm) branches are covered in very fragrant blooms which later turn into bright red (and toxic) berries. Plant this treasure in the sun close to an entranceway where you can enjoy it daily, but warn children against their berries.

This next plant should be used more often in the winter garden. Fragrant wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) is a deciduous, multi-stemmed shrub that is with a fountain-like habit. In late winter, strange yellowish-green blooms with purple centres appear on the bare branches. Take advantage of these fragrant flowers by cutting the stems for indoor floral arrangements. Pruning out old canes keeps the plant compact and attractive.

Winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora) is related to the ever-popular witch hazel. This dainty spreading shrub produces fragrant, primrose-yellow blooms on short branches along the main stems. Another member of this family is Corylopsis spicata, which has attractive, crooked, wide-spreading branches. The fragrant yellow blooms are long and pendulous, and are followed by purplish leaves that later turn a showy bluish-green.

Erysimum x Bowles Mauve grows rounded and shrub-like in form, but is actually a short-lived perennial. The greyish-green evergreen leaves are accentuated by long clusters of mauve blooms almost year round. Plant this perennial in full sun and shear back in July to promote fall blooming.

For a variety of fragrant colour, plant common wallflowers (Chieranthus chieri) which range in colours from ivory to orange, and even scarlet! These plants are biennial and will reseed in your garden freely.

A beautiful plant that will complement shade-loving evergreens, such as rhododendrons, skimmia, and sweet box, is lungwort (Pulmonaria). This perennial usually forms low mounds of green leaves dotted a silvery grey. The spring clusters of pink blooms age to blue, producing a bicolour effect. Pulmonaria rubra "Redstart" is a very-early-blooming variety that has deep red blooms. A real bonus is that these plants attract the hungry March hummingbirds.

Omphalodes cappadocica makes a semi-evergreen ground cover in a shady spot. Bright gentian-blue flowers rise above the small, green, heart-shaped leaves in late spring.

This next perennial is attractive in all phases of growth. Pasque flower (Pulsatillia vulgaris) has thin stems with nodding, cup-shaped flowers that range in colour from red to purple, pink or white. I love the mound of feathery green leaves they produce throughout the season, and the blooms later change into fluffy seed heads. Pulsatillia vulgaris loves the sun and is drought tolerant, making it an excellent choice for a rock garden.

There are so many early-blooming shrubs and perennials that I cannot possibly list them all. So take a trip to the GARDENWORKS nearest you and let us show you the vast array of winter wonders.

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