Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna 'Purple Stem'

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

It seems almost indecent that one plant should be in possession of so many ’C’s’. Greedy. Especially in one that is, frankly, pretty dreary for much of the year.

Glossy green leaves and slightly claret tinged stems notwithstanding, it is a shrub whose presence can remain unnoticed for at least 330 days (331 if it is a leap year). You could walk past it without even registering its existence: I know this for a fact as there is one just outside my office with which I exchange neither word nor glance for much of the year.

And then, in the depths of winter, something happens. It flowers, unobtrusive little whiteish flowers, and when that happens they release a scent unlike any other. Peppery yet sweet, crisp yet juicy it carries a long way in the thin winter air. It is as if a soaring treble voice has suddenly emerged from a nondescript crowd of milling buffalo. Remarkable. Good Things: Plant it close to doors or paths, no point in putting it away in parts of the garden that are only visited in the summer. Bad Things: As I said, a bit dull for much of the time. Keep it out of very cold and drying winds.

Phlomis tuberosa 'Amazone'

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

There are three main varieties of phlomis for gardens: the shrubby Phlomis fruticosa, the evergreen Phlomis russeliana (which has hairy leaves and soft yellow flowers) and this one which is pink and flowers in about July. They all make, as you can see, pretty sexy corpses which will stand well into the winter. I grow it with a white umbellifer called Seseli libanotis which is equally fabulous but in a completely different way: flat topped as opposed to perky.

Good Things: A good colour for mid-summer. It goes well with that whole soft roses and flowery dresses feel.

Bad Things: A little more tender than the others so tricky if you live in a seriously cold part of the world.

Lonicera fragrantissima

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Always tricky these winter flowering shrubs. As with sarcococca there is absolutely no point in shoving something that smells so divine at the back of a border where nobody will notice. At the same time if you plant it too close to the front then you are stuck with a bit of an unedifying bruiser for the rest of the year. The answer is to strike a compromise and keep it close, but not too close, and inflict a bit of a post-flowering pruning regime to keep it in check.

Good Things: Scent is even better if trained up against a sunny wall.   Grows about 2m high and about 3m wide.

Bad Things: Related to, but not an actual honeysuckle as we know it: in other words it will not climb on to the roof and smother the chimney pots nor wreath the door of your charming cottage in summery goodness. Sadly quite dull for much of the year but anything that performs in the depths of winter is worth the space.

Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus'

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Many grasses are useful in the winter garden Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ has very upright stems that stand well. The bronzey Carex testacea is useful on border edges and in pots. There are lots of miscanthus in different sizes from M.’Yakushima Dwarf’, which is only a couple of feet high, to blimmin’ great monsters like M.sinensis ‘Malepartus’ which works really well in jungly gardens. This one has a rather distinguished pale stripe down the centre of each leaf and in the winter, well, as you can see it looks rather marvellous. I cut it down again in about February by which time it is soggy and spent.

Good things: really lovely flowers in early Autumn: quite understated but if you look closely, they are as beautifully braided as a dressage pony’s mane. Bad Things: You will need to shelter them from the worst of the winter’s winds.

Viburnum opulus

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

A flash of red on a frosty morning is a good thing. Yes, we have holly berries being perky all over every Christmas biscuit tin and cotoneasters can be pretty good in the glossy bauble stakes but…. The red berries of Viburnum opulus (the common Guelder Rose) are fleshy and vulnerably transparent. They look debauched: a little like W.C. Fields returning home after a serious bender.

Good Things: Not just berries but really good globular flowers in the spring. Easy to grow. 4m tall.

Bad Things: Occasionally susceptible to viburnum beetle which tends to eat the leaves during summer.

Iris reticulata

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

One of the first bulbs: they begin flowering in about February and are a fabulous contrast to their contemporaries, the snowdrop and the eggy yellow aconite. Many of the best varieties bear the same names as some of the Rev. W. Awdry’s famous engines - Edward, George and Gordon. It would be perfect if somebody bred one called the Fat Controller. Native to the slopes of Turkey so keep the drainage sharp.

Good Things: Cheap and easy to plant as they do not have to go in very deep. Really good in gravel or layered in pots.

Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

There is not a trace of purple left in this fennel but it is one of the most robust perennials and will keep a sturdy skeleton through an entire winter. Bring on a bit of frost or snow and it is instantly transformed into something gorgeous rather than something a bit stick like and, frankly, dull. Sometimes cold weather is a good idea.

Good Things: At other times of the year this is a useful herb with edible seeds and feathery leaves that go well with fish.

Bad Things: Tends to seed itself around a bit so keep an eye open.

Betula pendula

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Any list of wintry plants really has to include a silver birch. The scrubbed white bark stands out against a naked landscape. In Russia there are forests of the things between whose trunks troikas careen bearing fur wrapped beauties to furtive assignations with dashing hussars. At least that is what happens in films.

The basic birch is a bit big for most gardens so, in reality, the best varieties are B.jaquemontii (which has the best white bark), B.ermanii  (whose bark has the pinkish tinge of a winter sunrise) or B.nigra, which is bit rougher and shaggier in its habits if you prefer that sort of thing. Good Things: The bark.  This is also a fairly loose branched tree so does dappled shade very well.

Good autumn leaves and catkin flowers in spring.

Bad Things: Quite shallow rooted so difficult to get things established beneath the canopy.

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

A good solid shrub that produces pink flowers that have a very distinct boudoir scent about them: the sweet smell of bath salts and a powdered cleavage. These appear pretty much all through the dreary months of winter.

It is a big thing - at least 3m high and 2m wide - so think carefully about where you are going to plant it. The flowers are quite tightly furled so if you prefer something a little more open then go for Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’. Invaluable.

Good Things: Also has a perfectly acceptable leaf. Bronzy when young and then attractively creased - like the cheek of WH Auden. Black fruits in autumn.

Bad Things: Best pruned each year.  Thin out by removing a couple of the older branches.


Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Everybody loves a Crocus: they are like Dickensian urchins playing around in the snow. “Spare a tanner, Guvnor” you can almost hear them say.  These are urchins as interpreted by Lionel Bart: colourful and with absolutely no trace whatsoever of grime, poverty or squalor. You expect them to burst into a cheery song at any moment while hooking their thumbs through their braces. They come in yellow, purple and purest white as well.

Good Things: Easy to grow. Plant the bulbs a couple of inches underground in the autumn.

Bad Things: Susceptible to squirrels and mice so, if possible, put a bit of wire netting over the bulbs. (Easier to do in a pot than in open ground.)


Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

What do you call a moss expert? Trees have dendrologists, fern buffs are pteridologists while snowdrop lovers are galanthophiles. Perhaps it is a bryophyte. I ask because I have no idea what this pretty moss is called: it grows on a wall by my mother-in-law’s vegetable garden and always looks very lovely no matter what the weather. Could it be a Polytrichum. Or maybe a Physcomitrella? Somebody will tell us: a mossologist perhaps? Or a mossoliter?

Good Things: Soft and evergreen. Excellent insulation if you find yourself in a tight corner. Otzi (the 3,000 year old mummified corpse discovered in the South Tyrol in 1991) had moss packed boots which did not stop him getting shot with an arrow but may have kept his toes warm.

Bad Things: Moss is very will ful and will grow where it wants rather than where you want.

Papaver somniferum

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Sometimes plants do not even need to be alive to look beautiful - which is more than can be said for most people, unless you are Robert Pattinson and have mysteriously become an ageless denizen of the dark. Instead all they need is the right weather - in this case the shattered seed head of an opium poppy is blessed with a new lease of life by a good hard frost.

Good things: Almost better dead than alive.  Forces you to put a coat on and go out there and look at things.

Bad Things: In Britain, at least, we do not often get the sort of blue skied, clear aired frost that gives good winter silhouettes. In Northern Europe or the USA such weather is much more likely. Tough luck those of you in Australia or Asia.

Fraxinus excelsior

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

This is the bark of our beleaguered comrade the ash. After hundreds of years of providing us with any number of products ranging from the belligerent (the best Longbow arrows were often made from ash saplings as they grow so straight and true), the specialist (the wings of the de Havilland Mosquito - the WWII aircraft) through to the indispensably mundane (ash makes by far the best firewood) it seems that we are to be parted. This is because of the Chalara dieback disease.

It will not be an immediate farewell but a long and protracted adieu over the next few decades. Nor will it be permanent as there will be disease resistant trees and the ash will rise again - from the ashes, as it were. Unfortunately, I may well be dead by then but my grandchildren as yet unborn will benefit.

Good Things: Lovely deep charcoal coloured buds and handsome leaves.

Very Bad Things: At the moment it seems unlikely to survive into a comfortable old age and is best not planted. Instead keep an eye out for any signs of disease.

Buxus sempervirens

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Good old box. A stalwart in pretty much any garden - the great Alan Titchmarsh, whose newest book is reviewed elsewhere in this episode is openly obsessed with topiarised box. It is a stand up guy not just in formal gardens but also as a reliable shaggy evergreen shrub in borders, in hedges (both large and small) and in the wilder parts of the garden. In summer box is an excellent foil to herbaceous plants, annuals and flowering shrubs. In winter it looks sparkly and glamorous on its own.

Good Things: Reliable, adaptable and evergreen. More resistant to box blight than the smaller leaved, shorter growing Buxus suffruticosa.

Bad Things: Smells distinctly of cat pee. Branches can snap under the weight of snow so keep an eye open for trouble.

Pyracantha Saphyr Rouge

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Recommended by the police as a burglar deterrent. If left to its own devices pyracantha forms a wild and spiny shrub that will deter any passing trespasser from climbing your fence. They do not, in the words of the late Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army, “Like it up ’em”. Apart from that it is a really useful shrub that can be trained against walls and into hedges. White flowers in early summer, red berries in autumn and dark green leaves all year round. Can’t go wrong really; an excellent choice for a shady wall.

Good Things: Tough as anything. A good source of food for blackbirds and fieldfares. Some varieties have orange or yellow berries.

Bad Things: Vicious spines can easily pierce all but the toughest gloves. Go carefully. Sometimes susceptible to wooly aphid infestations.

Corylus avellana

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Plants are clever things most of the time. Take this, the common or garden hazel: it is a woodland native, happiest when scurrying around under taller trees or in hedgerows.

Hazel flowers very early in the year before anything else in the wood has even thought about stirring itself. The reason for this is very simple, it is wind pollinated. The wind blows the pollen around until it finds another hazel and then ’Pow’ they make beautiful music together and produce a family of nuts. They could not do this if they flowered later as the progress of the pollen would be obstructed by leaves. Clever, eh?

Good Things: Edible nuts (provided you get there before the squirrels) and a mature hazel can be coppiced for plant supports.

Bad Things: Not terribly exciting as garden plants. You would be better off with one of the purple leaved varieties like C. maxima ‘Purpurea’ if you wanted something more ornamental.

Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Not exactly the floweriest of things in the depths of winter when even the last whispers of summer have long since turned to ice. Instead we are left with a thorny branch and that is about it: except it obviously isn’t if you look at this picture.

Suddenly a plant you considered barely worth a glance is transformed into something gallant and striking. Whatever the weather you should always look: it may be cold but put on a thicker scarf and get out there. You can reward yourself with a bun when you’re back indoors.

Good Things: This is not the only good rugosa rose. In summer they make sensational hedges and wild shrubs and have endearingly plump hips in autumn.

Bad Things: Spiny. Rugosas are not the most refined of the rose family and are best in shrubberies and groups rather than as stand alone specimens.