January is not my favourite month. Dark days, the garden constantly wet underfoot and not many plants that cheer the spirits. That said at GreenPlantSwap we see a surge of interest from gardeners, whose thoughts after Christmas turn to Spring. Traffic on the site has doubled in the last two weeks.
But what can you enjoy in the garden right now? Snowdrops of course and the green shoots of daffodils give cause for optimism. In Devon this week I saw Camellias already out. Lucky them, back in Somerset they are nowhere near ready and I am sure will not be across most of the country.
Here, however, we have two dependable favourites, both of which put on a prolific show: Helleborus and Garrya Elliptica.
There are 20 or so Helleborus varieties originating from the Balkans and further East. They have intense, pastel-coloured blooms ranging from cream (Helleborus niger) to plum red (Helleborus pluto), lime green (Helleborus viridis) and even pinks (Helleborus x hillier). The flowers each have 5 petals (actually sepals) and stay on the plant longer than other plants. These look well against their distinctive leathery leaves which are mostly evergreen. You can cut the old leaves away to give way to new growth at the beginning of the year. In the main, Helleborus flower between late December and March and survive all but the hardest of frosts.
Helleborus prefer semi-shade and well drained clay soils. Woodland and more shaded border areas are ideal. In heavier clay soils, work in enough horticultural grit or you may lose them in their first winter to the cold, wet conditions. They also grow well in pots, but need enough room for their deep roots. However delightful they look, don't eat the flowers. They were used as a purgative in medicine for centuries, but many species are poisonous, which fact Alexander the Great apparently found out to his cost.
Garrya Elliptica, the Silk Tassle Bush, originates from California and Oregon on America's Pacific coast. It rewards with fabulous, profuse catkins at this time of year. There are male and female plants and the female is I think the better of the two. Male plants have longer catkins (8-10cms) and develop light yellow pollen. Female plants have slightly thicker, shorter catkins and form berries.
Garrya Elliptica is best grown against a fence or wall, as it requires shelter. The evergreen leaves are rather prone to wind scorch, which is unsightly, but does not seem to affect the health of the plant. The plant will grow on most soils from clay to sandy, provided there is good drainage. It is also a very good choice for coastal gardens, tolerating salt-laden winds better it seems than those inland, as we found with a plant we had in Brighton for many years. No doubt that's a result of its Pacific coast ancestry.
What other plants would you recommend for a bit of January cheer?