Gardening Journalist

Country Illustrated

Late, and all the better: the sweet faces of winter's rose

Star that she is, the Christmas rose is seldom punctual; but a mild winter such as this can break her routine. For Roddy Llewellyn, she is the forerunner in a garden beauty parade.

As I stare out of the window in midwinter on a cold, grey, wet sky through panes of glass all of a drip, there is a little in the way of colour to arrest the eye. Oh for a seedhead glinting with rime! I shall not see that today. But there are compensations: touches to the garden that give splashes of colour when most plants slumber, awaiting the kiss of a warmer soil to stir them to life.

I am pleased with a golden-leaved ivy (Hedra helix 'Buttercup') climbing up a black-stained wooden shed, the bright yellow leaves shining out against their dark background. There is also a haze of white flowers on the winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). It is trained up a pergola walk, the better to smell the fragrance of those deliciously scented flowers.

Equally pleasing is a winter-flowering shrub from the invaluable Viburnum genus, V bodnantense 'Charles Lamont', which is liberally sprinkled with large pink blobs - flowers more tolerant of wet and cold than are those of ubiquitously planted 'Dawn'.

Winter sweet (Chimonanthus praecox) lurks in a protected part of the garden where, on a still day, its powerful scent is trapped; but for pure magic of formation of flower, surely the Christmas rose is the most exotic at this time of year. The Latin name is Hellborus niger, which tells us that there is something black about this plant; yet the flowers are white, sometimes tinged with pink. The reason for the apparent anomaly lies in the plant's black roots. We may also wonder why, when grown outdoors in most parts of Britain, this beauty does not normally flower until after Christmas. In fact is will flower earlier, but only in mild winters.