Garden in Umbria

Plant of the Month - January

The coldest month, bringing frost but often also bright clear days. These flowers will bring a note of cheer at this most unlikely time of year. 

Clematis cirrhosa

Clematis cirrhosa ‘Freckles’ (photo P Reith)

This elegant fern-leaf clematis is in flower now. Next to my front door there is a Clematis cirrhosa var balearica which nods to me every time I go past. A species clematis native to Spain, it has small cream-white bells which are speckled inside. The foliage dies down in summer but returns in autumn. It needs no pruning other than a tidy if it is getting out of hand as it flowers on previous year’s growth. This family of clematis is resistant to heat, setting it apart from the large-flowered hybrids. A most welcome sight in these dark months.

Crocus etruscus

Crocus etruscus ‘Zwanenburg’ in a glass of pebbles

Crocus etruscus, Tuscan crocus, is originally native to central Italy and nowadays quite rare. The hybridised form ‘Zwanenburg’ shown in the photo is available commercially and it is a lovely flower for the middle of winter. Here I have grown it on top of pebbles in a glass of water on the windowsill.

Iris unguicularis - Algerian Iris

Iris unguicularis

Algerian iris. Iris unguicularis This little iris can sometimes go unnoticed as it nestles low down amongst its tall leaves. It starts to flower as early as December and keeps going right through winter. It is resistant to very cold winter temperatures but in summer enjoys a good baking. Also known as the Algerian Iris, it is native to the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa. Different shades of blue and even white are available but the common one is a lovely clear blue with a touch of mauve. The leaves can look a bit messy in summer but it is best left undisturbed to form a nice clump. Native to the Mediterranean, I have seen this flowering by the roadside in Algeria.

Lonicera fragrantissima - Winter Honeysuckle

Lonicera fragrantissima

You may not notice the small white flowers on this shrub but I can guarantee that their perfume will grab your attention. Planted next to a gate or pathway, on a still winter’s day the scent fills the air and lifts the spirits. It is a honeysuckle but grows as a deciduous shrub rather than a climber. A couple of metres high but can be kept more compact by taking out old branches in spring. It puts up with being ignored all through the warmer months – without watering - and comes into its own at the darkest time of year.

Ulex europeus - Gorse

Ulex europeus - Gorse

I have to confess that I am ambivalent about Gorse (Ulex europeus). It is a wild species that can become invasive and is terribly prickly - I suffered badly when trying to get rid of a rogue plant one autumn, only to discover that it had shot back up again in no time. But often this winter I have been pleasantly surprised at the warm colours of the flowers which bloom for months on end. Even its prickles can have a certain elegance in the pale morning light.

If you are looking for a candidate to fill a difficult space, especially if you want a barrier that will deter most animals (perhaps not wild boar though), then you might consider Ulex.

The photo at the top of this page shows Lonicera fragrantissima in bloom and bare white Perovskia stems reflected in the pond on a bright January afternoon

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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