In the bleak midwinter,

… except that it is not like winter at all. It has been unseasonably mild and not at all like winter. It is strange how plants react to peculiar weather and although some plants have been behaving oddly, with flowers on the apple trees, others seem to avoid being tricked by mild nights. The witch hazel (hamamelis) has only just started to open its buds and there are flowers on the winter honeysuckle and viburnum ‘Dawn’.

Daphnes are the queens of winter shrubs. When I worked at Nags Hall, in my teens, the only daphne we sold was Daphne mezereum which is a native shrub and deciduous. It carries masses of fragrant flowers all along the bare stems and these are often followed by bright red (poisonous) berries. But it is not an easy plant to grow, often dies after virus infection or a heavy crop of berries and is largely responsible for the reputation that all daphnes are difficult to please.

The only other daphne that was readily available was the evergreen Daphne odora, which is still a good choice for a sheltered position and is blessed with an even better scent from the flowers, which usually open from February onwards.

But the most desirable of all, at least in the past decade, has been Daphne bholua (top pic) which is (usually) semi-evergreen and starts to bloom now. My old plant, which lasted ten years before fading away, was in bloom for almost three months every spring, from late December, and was a joy.

Even better than this, if I dare say such as thing, is ‘Perfume Princess’ which is a hybrid of the last two species. It has more, and larger, flowers and the perfume is wonderful. It will grow in part shade or sun, if it is not too dry at the roots. My own plant suffered a very wet spot for a year and was very miserable so I dug it up and replanted it in a better spot last spring and it is making a good recovery. You can’t treat most daphnes like that. Which proves what good plant this is!

Most daphnes are small shrubs so there is room in every garden for a daphne. They are not ideal plants for containers but both Daphne odora and ‘Perfume Princess’ will grow well in a pot if you use John Innes No 3 compost.

If your hyacinths for Christmas are past their best and the perfume now rather unpleasant, you can rely on ‘indoor’ jasmine to take their place. You can buy these now, ideally in bud, and their flowers will open over several weeks. This is Jasminum polyanthum and must not be confused with the hardy, outdoor jasmine. It will sometimes survive in very sheltered spots but is basically not hardy. But it does not like too much heat either so is best on a cool, bright windowsill.

After flowering it will make yards of new growth and will not flower again till next spring, if you want to keep your plant.

If you got an amaryllis (Hippeastrum) in a box for Christmas, open it now and get it planted. It won’t take long and it will be in flower in as little as a month if kept somewhere warm. It can take much longer if kept cool. Water sparingly until the flower stem is growing. The leaves usually start to grow after flowering but don’t worry if they grow with the flowers.

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