Plan to Include Winter Flowers
in Your Garden for

Color and Fragrance

When it comes to plants with winter flowers, there are more choices than you might expect to add life to your winter landscape.

My first choice for flowers for the winter garden is always pansies and violas. These charmers add color and fragrance to your garden in winter and can be used in so many ways--as bedding plants for masses of color, as borders, as accents, to overplant spring bulbs, and in containers. Other annuals for consideration include snapdragons, dianthus, alyssum and ornamental cabbages and flowering kales.

Bulbs such as snowdrops, crocus, and reticulated iris that bloom in late winter/early spring are a delight, and can be naturalized in drifts of color that will increase every year. Of course, don't forget amaryllis (HIppeastrum) for indoor holiday color.

Hellebores, certainly, are a must for the winter garden. These tough perennials are beautiful, long-lasting and easy to grow.

There are a surprising lot of winter-blooming shrubs and trees. Though most bloom during periods of warmth and closer to spring, they let us know that winter is almost over, and often have the bonus of delightful fragrance.

Annuals for Winter Flowers

Antirrhinum majus, snapdragons, Zones 7-11.  Snapdragons are tender perennials or biennials, usually used as annuals as they prefer cooler temperatures.  In the South, they are often planted in the fall and will survive the winter to bloom through the spring, and  indeed, often last through the summer. They come in a wide range colors including white, yellow, peach, orange, pink, red and purple, making them versatile additions to the border.  And, of course, they delight children with their “snapping” mouths—and hummingbirds love them too!

Antirrhinum majus (snapdragon) 'Aromas Red Spice' is a rich red that adds drama to the garden.Antirrhinum majus 'Aromas Red Spice'

Brassica oleracea capitata, ornamental cabbage and Brassica oleracea acephala, flowering kale, Zones 2-11.  Though ornamental cabbage and flowering kale are in the same genus and species as the vegetables we all know, they are classified as a distinct group and are not generally eaten having a bitter taste.  So, they are used purely as decorative elements and add much to the beauty of the fall and winter garden in containers and as bedding annuals.  In fact, they require cool temperatures to produce the best colors.  In Zone 7 and below they may survive the winter until warmer temperatures cause them to bolt and set seed, at which time they are discarded.  Colors range from white to pink, red and purple with some varieties having finely divided leaves (considered flowering kale) and some with broader leaves that resemble roses (considered ornamental cabbage).  Combine them in containers with pansies and violas, or in beds with other cool weather annuals like dianthus or snapdragons and include some spring bulbs for a lovely display.

'White Peacock' flowering kale has frilly, deeply segmented leaves in white.  They are standouts in the winter garden especially teamed with pansies and violas.'White Peacock' flowering kale with pansies and tulips

Viola cornuta, viola or horned violet, Zones 5-11.  Charming and cheerful, violas are a must in the winter and spring garden. Though smaller than their pansy cousins, they are more cold tolerant, and put on a colorful show with their prolific bloom.  New varieties of violas have been developed in a wide range of colors, including white, yellow, orange, peach, pink, rose, violet, blue, purple, and near black, in bi-color and tri-color combinations.  They are superb for mass planting for drifts of color, to edge a path, in beds, borders, and containers, and make great companions with spring bulbs and cold-tolerant annuals like sweet alyssum, dianthus, English daisies, forget-me-nots, pansies, and wallflowers.

Viola cornuta Sorbet 'Delft Blue' is a beautiful combination of blue and white.Viola cornuta Sorbet 'Delft Blue'
Viola cornuta Sorbet XP 'Morpho' is a blue and yellow viola.Viola cornuta Sorbet XP 'Morpho'

Viola tricolor, Johnny-jump-up, viola, Zones 3-9.  Viola tricolor is one of the species used to develop the pansies and violas we know and love today.  Its charming “face” and tricolors of blue, white and yellow have endeared it to gardeners for centuries.  Easy to grow, and will self-seed where happy.

Viola tricolor is one of the species from which today's pansies and violas are derived.  It is a classic combination of blue, yellow and white.

Viola x wittrockiana, pansy, Zones 4-11.  Pansies are much loved for their rainbow of beautiful colors, cheerful "faces" and fresh scent.  In the milder areas of the country (Zones 7 and above) they are planted in the fall to overwinter and will bloom in the fall, slow down during the coldest part of winter and resume as the days lengthen.  They are best treated as annuals because by the end of May they begin to languish in the growing heat and can be replaced with summer annuals.  Sometimes they will self-seed and reappear in the fall when the temperatures cool off.

Viola x wittrockiana 'Imperial Antique Shades'is available in soft pastel shades of white, cream, yellow, peach, rose and burgundy.Viola x wittrockiana 'Imperial Antique Shades'

Bulbs for Winter Flowers

Crocuses--There are crocuses that bloom in spring and fall, and there are a few that are extra early and bloom in late winter to early spring.

Crocus ancyrensis 'Golden Bunch,' Zones 3-8.  An early bloomer, ‘Golden Bunch’ is a cheery sight in late winter or early spring with its burst of golden blooms.

Crocus ancyrensis 'Golden Bunch' is an early bloomer in bright golden yellow.Crocus ancyrensis 'Golden Bunch'

Crocus chrysantha, golden crocus, Zones 4-7.  Another early blooming species of crocus.  There are other colors available besides the yellow of the species—white, cream, blue and purple. 

Crocus chrysantha 'Dorothy' is an early blooming variety in bright yellow.Crocus chrysantha 'Dorothy'

Crocus etruscus, Zones 5-8. Pale lilac.

Crocus imperati, Zones 5-9. Striped yellow on the outside, purple on the inside.

Crocus sieberi subsp. sublimis ‘Tricolor' Zones 3-8.  An intriguing little purple crocus with a golden throat edged in white, ‘Tricolor’ blooms in late winter to early spring.  In my 7b garden, it bloomed in mid-February; however, one day they were in full bloom, the next the rabbits (or deer) had nibbled them to the ground, so they were not able to return the next year.  But they were charming, so if I try them again I will plant them in a pot.

Crocus sieberi subsp. sublimis 'Tricolor' is a little purple crocus with a golden throat edged in whit.Crocus sieberi subsp. sublimis 'Tricolor'

Crocus tommasinianus, Tommasini's crocus Zones 3-8. Purple.  Nicknamed "tommies" these charmers bloom in late winter to early spring and are great to naturalize in large drifts under the still bare trees where they can be left undisturbed to increase in number.

Crocus tommasinianus is an early blooming crocus in soft lavender-blue.Crocus tommasinianus

Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconites, Zones 4-9. These small bright yellow flowers look like they are wearing green Elizabethan collars and often open before the snowdrops.

Eranthis hiemalis, or winter aconites, have single six-petaled yellow flowers with a bright green "ruff" of leaves underneath.Eranthis hiemalis

Galanthus elwesii, giant snowdrop, Zones 3-8.   G. elwesii is larger in all parts than G. nivalis.  It is taller to about 5-9”, the leaves are broader, and the flowers are larger with the outer petals being about 3 times as long as the inner ones.   Pure white with green markings on the inner petals.

Galanthus elwesii, or giant snowdrop, so named because it is larger in all its parts than other species of snowdrops.  Pure white with green markings on the inner petals.Galanthus elwesii

Galanthus nivalis, snowdrops, Zones 3-7. A true harbinger of spring, snowdrops emerge from the ground in late winter or early spring--sometimes peeking through the snow. The three pure white petals that flare out like little rotors and the inner cup tinged with green are freshness itself. Snowdrops will perform better in colder climates. Plant in drifts under trees where they will be undisturbed and they will multiply into a magnificent display.

Galanthus nivalis has three pure white petals that flare out like little rotors and the inner cup tinged with green.Galanthus nivalis
Galanthus nivalis 'Flore-Pleno'Galanthus nivalis 'Flore-Pleno'

Iris danfordiae, Zones 5-9. This small bright greenish-yellow iris with brown spots on the falls blooms close to the ground, and provides welcome winter flowers of cheery color at the gloomiest time of the year. Plant a few in drifts in the fall, or tuck a few in pockets on the edges of beds or under trees where they will be undisturbed.

Iris danfordiaeIris danfordiae

Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin,’ reticulated iris hybrid, Zones 5-8.  A lovely little iris this is in pale silvery blue veined with deeper blue and highlighted with yellow splotches.   

Iris 'Katharine Hodgkin'Iris 'Katharine Hodgkin'

Iris reticulata, reticulated iris, Zones 5-8. A small iris that blooms in late winter or early spring depending on location and the weather, the reticulated iris is named for the net-like veining on the petals. The color range is pale blue to deep violet usually with some markings of white or yellow. Other cultivars include 'Cantab,' light blue; 'George,' violet; 'Harmony,' dark blue; and 'J. S. Dijt,' reddish-purple.

Iris reticulataIris reticulata
Iris reticulata 'Cantab'Iris reticulata 'Cantab'
Iris reticulata 'J. S. Dijt'Iris reticulata 'J. S. Dijt'

Iris unguicularis, Algerian iris, Zones 7-9. Known as the winter iris, this North African native blooms in late winter into spring close to the ground as if to protect itself from the winter chill. Best for milder climates similar to its Mediterranean origins.

Iris unguicularis, Algerian irisIris unguicularis

Leucojum vernum, spring snowflake, Zones 4-8.  Nodding white bells with a drop of spring green at their tips, make a charming display in a woodland setting when planted en masse.

Leucojum vernumLeucojum vernum

Perennials for Winter Flowers

Helleborus foetidus, stinking hellebore, Zones 6-7.  Don't let the common name put you off!  A bad odor is not readily noticeable, and you can call it bear's foot hellebore, if you prefer.  Whatever you call it, this hellebore is a handsome addition to the woodland garden, with narrow dark evergreen  leaves and pale, creamy-greenish flowers tinged with a bit of rose around the edges.  It will self-seed where happy, preferring moist, humusy, alkaline soils.  Be aware that the plant is highly poisonous in all its parts.

Helleborus foetidusHelleborus foetidus

Hellebore Hybrids : hybrid Lenten rose, Zones 4-9.  No shady winter garden is complete without Lenten roses.  They are tough plants, heat and drought tolerant, and deer-resistant. Hellebore species and those crosses called H. x hybridus tend to have down-facing flowers and can self-seed prolifically—great if you want to develop a large colony —but all you have to do is cut off the flower stems before the seedpods ripen to prevent this. Recent breeding programs have developed beautiful hybrids that do not self-seed, and have larger flowers that are more up-facing. Look for hybrids called Helleborus x ballardiae, H. x ericsmithii, H. x glandorfensis, and H. x iburgensis in their nomenclature for cultivars for that are sterile.  Some hybrid series to look for include Frostkiss® and HCG® (Helleborus Gold Collection) Ice n' Roses® for sterile varieties.

Hellebores are available in shades of pure white, pink, mauve, plum, purple, and greenish to reds, yellows, apricots, and near black in solids and bicolors, singles and doubles, simple or fancily-frilled.  The large, leathery palmate leaves are evergreen and attractive all year, and some of the newer varieties even have beautiful variegated foliage such as Frostkiss® ‘Dorothy’s Dawn™,’ below.  Hellebores are easy to care for and are long-lived.  Grow them in a shady to semi-shady location, in humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil that is pH neutral.  Do not plant in an area that stays wet to prevent rotting.  In winter or early spring, when the flower buds and new leaves begin to rise, just cut off the old, tattered leaves from the previous year.  For me, in my Zone 7b garden, some varieties begin blooming in late November and continue until April.

H. x glandorfensis HCG® Ice n’ Roses® ‘Picotee’has single white flowers with pink edges.H. x glandorfensis HCG® Ice n’ Roses® ‘Picotee’
Helleborus x hybridus Winter Jewels®  'Amethyst Gem' has beautiful double purple flowers with a lighter edge.Helleborus x hybridus Winter Jewels® 'Amethyst Gem'
H. x hybridus HGC® Spring Promise® ‘Conny’ has a pure white single bloom speckled inside with purple.H. x hybridus HGC® Spring Promise® ‘Conny’
H. x iburgensis Frostkiss® ‘Anna’s Red’™ has red flowers and mottled foliage.H. x iburgensis Frostkiss® ‘Anna’s Red’™
H.x iburgensis Frostkiss® ‘Dorothy’s Dawn™ has pink flowers and beautiful variegated foliage.H.x iburgensis Frostkiss® ‘Dorothy’s Dawn™ foliage

Helleborus niger, Christmas rose, Zones 3-8. Helleborus niger is a beautiful plant under the right conditions--it prefers moist, humusy alkaline soil in a shady location. The pure white flowers with centers of golden stamens fade to pink as they mature and tend to bloom earlier than the Lenten roses; however, they do not necessarily bloom at Christmastime.

Helleborus niger HCG® ‘Jacob’ has a pure white single flower.Helleborus niger HCG® ‘Jacob’
Helleborus niger HCG® 'Snow Frills' has a pure white double flower.Helleborus niger HCG® 'Snow Frills'

Salvia rosmarinus, rosemary, Zones 7-9.  The plant we had long known as Rosmarinus officinalis, has apparently been reclassified into the Salvia genus and renamed Salvia rosmarinus.  However, it is still the same plant with the same aromatic foliage that is so wonderful for cooking and to brush by in the garden.  Flowers appear in the winter in shades of light to dark blue as well as lavender, pink and white.

There are many uses for rosemary.  For the winter garden, try combining it in pots with violas or pansies and small late winter/early spring bulbs.  Keep a pot near the kitchen door to snip sprigs for cooking.  A woody sub-shrub, it takes well to pruning and can be used as a hedge, or even topiary.  Rosemary likes full sun, good drainage and is drought tolerant and deer resistant.

Salvia rosmarinus (or Rosmarinus officinalis)Salvia rosmarinus (or Rosmarinus officinalis)

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