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Jan/Feb 2012

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Six reliable plants for winter greenery

During the winter months I like to see as many plants looking as alive as possible. Evergreen trees and shrubs, deciduous ones that flower, a whole host of hellebores and winter-flowering bulbs are all cheering at this time of year. There aren't, apart from the hellebores, many evergreen perennials but I value some of them and have made a short list of six of the best.  

Meconopsis paniculata is a big Himalayan poppy that dies after flowering. Before that there is a large basal rosette of evergreen leaves densely covered in hairs and with a texture like velvet. It looks as if it would disintegrate at the first vicious blast of frost but all the ones in the garden came through the last two winters unscathed. The rosette of leaves can be there for up to four years before producing a tall stem of cupped yellow flowers. Although it dies afterwards, it leaves a copious legacy of seeds.

I particularly like Arum italicum ‘Pictum' which has a curious habit of growth. Its arrow-shaped leaves, green marbled with white, disappear in summer. In early autumn it has stalks of bright red berries followed by the leaves. They are completely hardy in harsh winters. Once you have one in your garden you never need to worry about propagating it because birds, especially blackbirds, obligingly recycle the berries - with a little dollop of fertilizer - often far away from the parent plant. As winter progresses the leaves increase in size. Flower arrangers love them.

Most irises are deciduous but Iris foetidissima is one of the evergreen ones that can grow in the most inhospitable places. The form ‘Variegata' only has subdued yellow flowers after rare hot summers but it's a beautiful foliage plant with grey green and white-striped, sword-shaped leaves that harmonise well with the arum. The cheerful, glossy, slightly leathery evergreen leaves of Epimedium perralderianum form good ground covering carpets, even in dry shade, and is totally hardy. Gardening gurus advise you to clip these off to reveal the small 1.5 cm yellow flowers in spring. I value it more for its foliage than its flowers so I don't bother doing this.

The soft shield fern, Polystichum setiferum, is my favourite fern and gives all-season interest. The fronds, which can be up to a metre long, are soft to the touch but its delicate appearance belies its hardiness. It's not fussy and will thrive in both dry and damp conditions. Vinca, or periwinkle, is one of those sociable plants that seem to mix well with everything else. Vinca major is the greater periwinkle with blue flowers that come and go from March onwards. The variety Vinca major ‘Elegantissima' doesn't flower as freely as the plain green-leaved form but its mat of green and yellow-blotched leaves is especially attractive during winter. Vinca minor is smaller in all its parts and is completely prostrate forming a mat in the shadiest parts of the garden. The form ‘Argenteovariegata' is lovely with sage-green leaves narrowly edged with cream. The flowers in spring are light blue but purple crocuses, such as ‘Whitewell Purple', can be planted to grow through the stems and make a pretty winter picture.

 

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