A Long List Of Shrubs, Bulbs And Perennials Will Bolster The Spirits During Dreary Months -- Winter Gardens

Much has been made of our dreary Northwest winters: long nights and short, dark, gray, depressing days.

People who are energetic and full of life during bright days of summer can degenerate into antisocial hibernators.

A similar situation exists in our gardens. The overflowing abundance of summer's profusion is reduced to a soggy, sorry layer of decomposing sludge, blanketing the soil where so recently bloomed a glorious herbaceous border, or a brilliant bed of over-achieving annuals.

This horticultural hibernation cannot be remedied with a trip to the tropics, but there are ways to perk up a dreary winter garden.

Many deciduous shrubs and trees exhibit brightly colored branches, an interesting pattern, or papery exfoliating bark. Evergreens often take on tones of bronze and plum. Berries add dashes of color, until the robins get them.

These are all pleasing, if somewhat subtle effects, and we're glad for them. But where are the flowers, the scents that really spell garden? While not having the vast numbers of choices available for summer color, you can take comfort in a surprisingly long list of shrubs, bulbs and perennials that will help bolster the spirits through the long months of winter.

Shrubs that bloom in winter

Winter-blooming shrubs serve well as unassuming green backdrops for the more lavish displays of summer, but reveal their more exciting nature when the competition has faded. The witch hazels tease at their potential with vivid fall foliage, which drops to expose an exuberant, angularly spreading branch habit. By the turn of the year, little nubbins that line the branches begin to explode into spidery, threadlike blossoms in shades of yellow through muted orange and near-red. Backlit by low sun, witch hazels can create a brilliant show. And, satisfying as the blossoms are, they exude a sweet, far-reaching perfume that is likewise justification for growing them.

Hamamelis intermedia Pallida is a light shade, while Arnold Promise is much brighter. Richer still are Jelena, a coppery orange, and Diane in red-orange. The appropriately named winter sweet (Chimonanthus) scents the air from blossoms with the color and translucence of beeswax. Against a south wall, even our fleeting January sun amplifies this shrub's charms.

Of a rather gaunt habit are the viburnums Dawn, Deben and V. farreri. Their pink or white scented pompons are never given lavishly, but a sprinkling from November to March assures blossoms for sweet windowsill bouquets. A shrubby honeysuckle, Lonicera fragrantissinia, possesses similar qualities.

One of the most lavishly scented winter bloomers is February daphne, D. mezereum. Dozens of tiny purplish-rose to white blossoms surround the tips of its bare upright branches, reminding me of a giant floral frilled toothpick.

By now it must seem that all winter flowers are scented. That is often the case to attract the few pollenizers that are about at this season. Among the unscented plants is a small-scale charmer - Abeliophyllum distichuin - often called white forsythia. It is indeed similar to good old scrambled-eggs-on-a-stick, but eminently more refined, and even earlier.

Flowering evergreens

Plenty of evergreens flower in the winter, too. These are particularly good around entries, where too many deciduous plants can look bleak, and where their blossoms and scents can be appreciated by the less far-ranging comings and goings of winter.

A hedge of sturdy Viburnum tinus will open white blossoms from flat-topped clusters of pink buds. A variegated form adds extra sparkle. Line your sidewalk with sweet box, either dwarf Sarcococca humilis or taller S. ruscifolia. Nearly insignificant white flowers pour forth an intoxicating vanilla-ginger scent, very "free on the air." Arriving guests will love it.

Rhodies and japonica camellias are stock items hereabouts. But the hybrid Williamsii camellias, with stately semi-double pink flowers, add class to a January landscape. And while screeching magenta may not be your favorite shade, under February's gray skies Rhododendron mucronulatum is vibrant, rather than vulgar.

Liven up summer-blooming shrubs by letting Clematis balearica or winter jasmine scramble through them. The rose-peppered greenish bells of the somewhat tender clematis need close appreciation, but the forthright yellow of Jasminum nudiflorum can be enjoyed from afar. Let it spill over a retaining wall, or festoon a rip-rap "rockery." It thrives even in the shade of a north wall.

A carpet of crocus

At the bases of your shrubs, carpet the ground with early crocuses, such as C. ancyrensis (gold bunch), tomasinianus, or the many varieties of C. chrysanthus. While the flowers may be smaller than the big Dutch hybrids, each corm produces a cluster of blossoms, and they multiply like crazy. Do plant crocuses where winter sun is likely to strike them, or they may come and go without opening.

The same can be said of winter aconite, Eranthis. Their yellow cups backed by frilly green ruffs are a special prize since only a percentage of the shriveled bulbs you plant will grow and colonize. The problem is that like lilies they never go totally dormant, so being sold from boxes is rough on them.

Snowdrops (Galanthus) do go dormant, but if you want to spread your colonies about, do it when they bloom. One of the hardy cyclamens, C. coum (that's " co-um," not "coom") regales you throughout winter with chubby little shooting stars in bright pink or rose. And miniature violet-scented Iris reticulata and its less-scented varieties, together with I. histrioides, add a note of whimsy.

Herbaceous perennials

A few herbaceous perennials grace us with their flowers now.

Salmon-coral Pulmonaria rubra also makes a weed-proof cover. In a dry sunny spot, a succession of violet blossoms appears among the grassy leaves of Iris unguicularis.

But first prize goes to the hellebores. In December, towers of lime green bells rise above the bold, toothy leaves of H. foetidus, lasting until April.

The Christmas rose, H. niger, bears pristine white flowers, but is a bit miffy; some clones are very shy bloomers. Not so the Lenten rose, H. orientalis. Long-lasting 2-inch flowers come in every shade from white through deepest maroon, some speckled with rose, some pale icy green. Feature hellebores near paths, where their handsome foliage looks good year-round.

If you need inspiration, take a walk through the Winter Garden in Seattle's Washington Park Arboretum. I think you'll be convinced that the "quiet time" benefits from being a little noisier.

Jerry Sedenko is a garden designer and freelance writer whose work has appeared in most national gardening magazines.