Garden in Umbria

Plant of the Month - February

If we are going to get snow then it is most likely to arrive in February. The first little spring bulbs arrive to help us through this rather gloomy month.

Anisodontea malvastroides

Anisodontea malvastroides

In a mild winter this malva-type shrub has small pale pink blooms right through to spring. With delicate branches the plant reaches about 2m. Resistant to drought but it is supposed to be a little frost tender (it is native to South Africa) but seems to cope well here.

Crocus species

Crocus sieberi ‘Tricolor’

Little species crocus are the earliest of the spring bulbs to pop their heads up in my garden: the first is the distinctive Crocus sieberi ‘Tricolor’. Brave little bulbs, they are native to the Balkans and Greece. The rich yellow Crocus chrysanthus are not far behind. These are often called ‘snow crocus’ because they can push up through the snow when they flower so early in the year. The later blooming lilac-purple Crocus tommasinianus (see photo at the top of this page) was named after botanist Muzio G. Spirito de Tommasini (1794-1879), who was Mayor of Trieste. Much more showy and intensely coloured are the hybridised Dutch crocus that arrive a couple of weeks later, but I like these delicate species.


Helleborus x hybridus 'Red Lady'

Hellebores are often called ‘Christmas Rose’ but this is misleading as they do not come into flower until February. Hybrid forms are more elegant, colourful and compact, with colours ranging from white to dark red, almost black, and sometimes speckled. Hellebores grow best in shade, perhaps by a north-facing wall or under trees. The flowers do tend to hang their heads, so growing them in a large pot raised up allows full view of the fascinating sepals and anthers. Hellebores can be subject to a fungal disease which discolours the leaves: simply trim the affected leaves off at the base of the stalk and admire the flowers.

Luminous flowers of Helleborus argutifolius native to Sardinia

There is a native Hellebore that lives on the edge of woodland here in Umbria: Helleborus foetidus. It has luminous greeny-yellow flowers on 60cm tall plant and can be used to good effect in the garden (please don’t go digging up wild ones; buy a propagated plant). It is said to flower only when there is snow.

Iris reticulata

Iris reticulata varieties ‘Fabiola’, ‘Purple Hill’ and ‘Rhapsody’

These little irises are bulbs and bloom in late winter, around the same time as crocus. At only 10cm tall they do well in pots. Originating in the Caucasus, Iris reticulata are resistant to cold winter temperatures and hot dry summers. Nonetheless I do find they tend to fade away after a couple of years, but the small bulbs are easy to plant and worth the effort for such exotic flowers so early in the year. The name ‘reticulata’ (netted) refers to the ‘net’ of fibres clothing the bulb. There are several types of bulb irises which bloom at different times: another favourite of mine are the Dutch irises which are a taller and come out in May. These are, of course, not the same as the familiar Bearded irises which are rhizomes. 

Teucrium fruticans

Teucrium fruticans ‘Azureum’

An ‘ordinary’ plant, sometimes referred to as the ‘weed of the Mediterranean’. There are lots of other types of Teucrium but this one is in flower right now and will continue for another month. The common Teucrium fruticans is pretty well bomb-proof as it is resistant to extremes of heat, drought and cold and copes with any old soil. It can be trimmed into topiary shapes or hedging but if left to its own devices will reach 2m tall. It bears pale blue flowers on slender, almost white, branches in late winter through spring then again in autumn. Rather more elegant in growth habit and impressively deep blue flowers is the variety ‘Azureum’ but sadly this is more vulnerable to cold and dislikes heavy clay soils.


Viola odorata

Some people regard these little wild violets as a weed, but I welcome their cheerful little faces so early in the year. Until of course their leaves become messy and they invade the flower beds with their creeping stolons. I council patience though, as it is the violets who decide where they want to live, not you. 

Winter Jasmine

Jasminum nudiflorum - Winter Jasmine

We tend to think of Jasmine as a perfumed climber flowering in summer. Indeed, the classic Jasminum officinale has white flowers in June. But there is a Jasmine for every season. Right now, the Jasminum nudiflorum (Winter jasmine) is belting out its acid yellow flowers in defiance of the weather. It has a drooping habit so is useful for edges of walls and it is tolerant of shade, as well as drought and cold.

The photo at the top of this page shows Crocus tommasinianus in the winter sunshine

Many of these articles first appeared in the Castiglione del Lago monthly newsletter “Qua e là” edited by Priscilla Worsley

All text and photographs © Yvonne Barton unless stated otherwise

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