December brings a few things to look forward to in the outdoors for hardy sorts, winter walks, the woods, the opportunity to hibernate and the shorter days and colder temperatures mean plant life is all but dormant now. This is the time of year when bare branches, stems and winter flowering garden plants give a minimalistic but beautiful show – even some summer perennial plants will frost and desiccate gracefully, grasses in particular, will catch the low sun and glow gold in the early dusk. Interestingly, Winter can be when a lot of scented plants bloom, witch hazels, Magnolia, Sarcococca, or Winter Box, a superbly scented evergreen shrub with a petite habit, and one of my top ten plants, the strangely beautiful Edgeworthia chrysantha.
The genus was named in honour of Michael Pakenham Edgeworth (1812–81), an Irish-born Victorian amateur botanist.
The species name chrysantha derives from the Greek xrus meaning golden and enteron meaning guts, with reference to the golden centre of the flowers. Personally, I think they look like miniature hairy bananas but aside from that, the flowers have a fresh citrus scent and the whole plant has an almost dreamlike, sculptural feel.
I think it rather crude to call Mr. Edgeworth an ‘Amateur’ botanist, as some records do. Although he is known to have had an interest in the family estate of 1,659 acres in Edgeworthtown, County Longford, Ireland, at a young age he left for India in 1831 to join the Indian Civil Service of the British Colonial regime. Edgeworth’s post encompassed an area from Lahore to Madras. He travelled widely throughout India and the island of Ceylon, (present day Sri Lanka) where he explored the tea growing regions, collected plants and made notes, particularly on ferns.
In 1850 he was made the Chief of Police of the English settlement Punjab. In addition to his interest in botany, he also wrote about Indian tongues and culture, topography, and antiquities. But he wasn’t always in India; as a correspondence between himself, and Charles Darwin to J.D. Hooker at Kew shows. Hooker was a founder of geographical botany, and Charles Darwin’s closest friend.
He was Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, for twenty years, in succession to his father, William Jackson Hooker, and was awarded the highest honours of British science. That file mentions a conversation held between himself, Edgeworth and biologists John Lubbock and George Charles Wallich, at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London (18 April 1861) less than two years after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (22 November 1859). Unfortunately, very little of the content of this conversation is revealed in the letter.
Top 5 winter plants:
Cornus – Plentiful tall woody stems in crimson, black and lime yellow. ‘Midwinter Fire’ has orange stems, and a smaller growth habit, but can be tricky to establish. All Cornus like a moist, but fertile soil. Cut back hard in March.
Narcissisus ‘Paperwhite’ – an indoor daffodil for forcing during December, has a strong, clean scent like Lillies.
Camellia – During late winter, the plant bursts into bloom. Young plants are best suited to being grown in a medium sized pot, on the patio.
They need an acidic loam based soil and consistent watering during the summer when they are building flower bud for the following year. ‘Jury’s Yellow’ is a creamy buttermilk double bloom.
Daphne – This genus has had a revival, and there is some choice. The sought after Daphne B. ‘Jacqueline Postill’, evergreen, small habit, citrus scented, to the architectural stems of D. mezereum with it’s black flower buds it looks like a bunch of swordfish fins. The scent is a little too pungent for me, verging on the sweet, black cherry-ish sort of scale.
Magnolia – With almost all species flowering on bare stems in late winter, I cannot imagine a winter garden without a magnolia. As the trees mature, the trunks take on a ghostly pale glow and smooth bark, and in January burst into scented blooms. The cup shaped, purple tinged blooms of Magnolia soulangeana are a welcome sight in a bare garden, and the delicate star shaped flowers of the stellate group which appear in pale white to softest pink last extremely well as a cut bloom for indoors.
Article by: Tara Moloney
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