Winter solstice solace

Sunday, 24 June 2012

A winter posy from my Sydney garden

As someone who dislikes winter, I always feel a sense of relief when the winter solstice has been and gone, as it did this week. I know that our coldest winter days are yet to come as we head into July, but there is a consolation in knowing that the days are now getting longer rather than shorter, as the truncated daylight hours are one of the things I loathe about the season.

White form of Iris unguicularis

Winter-flowering plants are also a great solace to me in the colder months, and we are so lucky in Sydney to have such an array of them to choose from. In my very early gardening days, one of the books I enjoyed reading was Down the Garden Path by Beverley Nichols (1932). This English gardener had a passion for winter flowers and devoted two chapters of the book to this topic. He listed about a dozen plants that he had collected to provide winter blooms, and in my naivety I assumed that these were the ones that I should grow here - shrubs such as Chimonanthus fragrans (often known as wintersweet), Hamamelis mollis (witch-hazel) and Daphne mezereum; bulbs such as true snowdrops (Galanthus species), Iris unguicularis and Crocus imperati; and hellebores. I only had success with the Iris and the hellebores, because gardening in the British Midlands is hardly a suitable model to follow in suburban Sydney - though I didn't realise that for a long time!

Ageratum houstonianum

Over the years, through trial and error, I have amassed a collection of plants that do flourish well here and bloom in mid-winter. None of them would have survived in Beverley Nichols's garden, as they would have been killed by the winter cold. We are so fortunate in our climate to be able to grow such a range of warm-climate flowers, due to the mildness of our winter temperatures (even if they feel cold enough to us!). A wander around my garden this morning, for example, reveals Camellia japonica in full bloom, including the wonderfully pristine 'Lovelight'. Nearby are clumps of white snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) and white hybrid hellebores. Other subtle hues can be found in the fragrant, lilac blooms of the bulb Tulbaghia simmleri, the fluffy blue powder-puffs of Ageratum houstonianum, the sweet-smelling Daphne odora and the pale bells of Strobilanthes anisophylla

Justicia rizzinii

Brightly coloured blooms such as rich yellow Reinwardtia indica (often known as linum), golden Tagetes lemmonii (mountain marigold), harlequin-coloured Justicia rizzinii (firefly), twining bright red Manettia luteorubra (Brazilian firecracker), the clear yellow daisies of Euryops chrysanthemoides, many Abutilon, the rich red berries of Ardisia crenata and cheerful yellow/orange jonquils light up the garden and give a sense of warmth in the coldest of days. Picking a posy of any of these flowers for indoors is a sure-fire way to banish the winter blues

Salvia Pink Icicles

There is a kaleidoscope of Salvia specimens in flower at this time - including soft pink Salvia 'Pink Icicles', bright blue Salvia rubiginosa and Salvia 'Costa Rica Blue', burgundy Salvia elegans Purple Form and Salvia 'Van Houttei', fiery red Salvia splendens (as well as pink and purple cultivars), bright pink Salvia involucrata 'Joan' ... and many others. One Salvia that is particularly lovely in winter is Salvia semiatrata, which has lavender blue flowers with dark blue markings, held in purplish calyces, above tiny, textured foliage.

Over time, I found other gardening books that were far more relevant for me than Down the Garden Path (which, by the way, is still in print) to guide my plant selection, but I still enjoy re-reading it and the other dozen gardening books Beverley Nichols wrote, for his quirky observations of human nature and his wild enthusiasm for gardening and plants, which to this day can still make me want to rush outside and get my hands into the dirt.