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Winter Posies, Courtesy of Reginald Farrer
by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


February 4, 2007

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The dark-pink buds of Farrer's viburnum open light-pink then turn white as they age.
Finally, a winter with flowers in my garden! Not that what’s in bloom in my back yard now will ever compete with the winter-blooming primulas, pansies, cyclamen, heaths and heathers grown by gloating friends in balmy British Columbia. But beggars, as they say, can’t be choosers!
Ontario’s record-breaking December and January temperatures have resulted in one of my favourite shrubs becoming a winter-bloomer. Not that Farrer’s viburnum (Viburnum farreri) ever waits beyond late March or early April to open its tight pink buds. But this winter, it broke dormancy well before Christmas and has been in bloom ever since, even with the mercury dipping to –16C one night. Prolonged frigid spells keep the pink buds just closed, but even one day of warm sunshine will nudge many into full flower. In fact, last week, I cut a few small branches and placed them in a bud vase so I could enjoy the sweet-scented flower clusters at my desk. But the warm indoor temperatures meant the blossoms lasted only a day or so before dropping, for this is one plant that truly thrives in the cold. .
In their 1967 classic The Fragrant Year, this is what Helen Van Pelt Wilson and Léonie Bell wrote about the shrub, which was then called Viburnum fragrans. “The fragrant guelder … has long been a favorite shrub, its perfume mysteriously combining the scents of wisteria and clove in the manner of certain lilacs. Unlike the familiar V. carlesii, which gives at best only ten days of bloom, V. fragrans flowers modestly for weeks on end. Even after our harshest winters, all the rose-red buds open to rich pink flowers that grow paler with age.”
The history of Farrer’s viburnum is colourful. In 1914-15, British plant explorers Reginald Farrer and William Purdom were prowling the foothills of the northern mountains separating China from the Mongolia border, collecting seeds of new species. Although the shrub was a favourite Chinese garden plant at the time, growing at very high altitudes, its “discovery” in the wild is credited to Farrer. Writes Alice Coats in her book Garden Shrubs and Their Histories: “He sent home abundant seed and would have sent more, but for an unfortunate falling-out with his Highness Yang Tusa, Prince of Jo-ni, who … in a fit of pique, set to and sedulously ate up all the Viburnum fruits in his palace garden, and threw away the seed.”
Today, fragrant viburnum, renamed to honour Farrer, is considered a winter-flowering shrub on the west coast and in Britain, where its flowers might open on a mild day in late autumn with flowering occurring sporadically until April. It likes full sun and reasonably good soil, but can’t be called a fussy shrub. Despite its tendency to early bloom, it is root-hardy only to Zone 6B; give it some protection from harsh winds and winter sun. It reaches 6-8 feet at maturity, with a rounded, upright growth habit. The flower clusters start out pale pink and fade to white and are quite modest in size -- more like the Burkwood viburnum than the big snowball blossoms of V. x carlcephalum. In early summer, red fruits form, later turning black, but don’t make a decorative statement like viburnums grown especially for their berries, such as native highbush cranberry, Viburnum trilobum. For small gardens or for low hedging, there’s a very good dwarf form called ‘Nanum’, which reaches about 3 feet.

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