BY VALERIE EASTON/Seattle, Washington, Zone 8
As the air chills and the earth twirls toward winter solstice, a branch of glossy leaves or a vase holding a spray of berries is as welcome as an armload of roses in June. The Northwest enjoys a long autumn, for hard freezes often hold off until January. Fruit, flowers, and foliage cut and brought into the house provide a continuing connection with the garden, reminding us that nature persists even when we're indoors most of the time.
Magnolia grandiflora ‘Victoria’ is one of the small evergreen magnolias whose leaves fluff out any arrangement; they even look striking simply gathered into a fat bunch and stuck into an oxblood-red or metallic vase. Be sure to twist the leaves in different directions for the full effect of glossy green tops contrasting with the felted coppery undersides.
A single branch of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo; pictured) is an arrangement all by itself. Narrow evergreen leaves and little white flowers serve as backdrop to round, warty fruits that color up late in the year in shades from yellow through orange to vivid scarlet, all at the same time.
Holly may be traditional, but new cultivars aren't boring. The fat little hedgehog holly (llex aquifolium ‘Ferox Argentea’) is a slow-growing, berryless male with each leaf crinkled and margined in warm cream. The center of the leaves of I. aquifolium ‘Golden Milkboy’ is bright golden yellow, trimmed in dark green, and ‘Silver Milkmaid’ is stunning, with silvery white and green leaves plus an abundance of scarlet berries.
When our eyes grow so accustomed to an arrangement that we fail to see it anymore, our noses still appreciate its perfume. Forget that artificially scented potpourri. All that's needed is a few twigs of sweet box (Sarcococca ruscifolia or S. confusa) tucked into a winter bouquet for the strong vanilla fragrance of their tiny white flowers to perfume a room. Viburnum tinus has scented clusters of pink buds that open to white flowers late in the autumn. The sweet smell of a small branch cut and kept by the bed or on the kitchen counter jolts a sensory reminder of summer past and spring to come.
Pair any lingering roses with the little pink flowers and spiky foliage of crimson flag (Schizostylis coccinea), always the last plant left flowering in my garden before Helleborus niger opens its blossoms to start the cycle anew. The fantastically gnarled branches of the contorted hazelnut (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) add height, twirl, and texture to any arrangement.
The shiny leaves and yellow variegation of small-leaved ivies, such as Hedera helix ‘Goldheart’ or ‘Buttercup’, are ideal for trimming and warming up arrangements. All the greens and berries of winter look their best when entwined with ivy, which can also be draped down the sides of pots and vases for a little drama. Happy gathering.
To do in the garden
- Cut down Melianthus major and mulch with its own branches. Other plants, such as hardy fuchsias, deal better with winter cold when their above-ground parts are left untouched until spring.
- After the rains begin in late October, and before it gets too cold, is an ideal time for planting and transplanting, as new or disturbed roots will have plenty of water until springtime. This is the time to move those trees, shrubs, and perennials whose placement has been bothering you all season.
- If you can bear the increasingly ratty looks of omamental grass inflorescences as winter progresses, you'll be rewarded for leaving them in place when, in early spring, nest-building birds eagerly compete for what is left of the fluffy blooms.
Nerine bowdenii The finely filigreed flowers of Nerine bowdenii are an exotic surprise in the late-November garden, for they resemble delicate lilies. They are, however, hardy bulbs in Zones 8-10 (I've grown them in a protected spot in Zone 7) and do best with well-drained soil and a winter mulch. The recurved, wavy-edged pink blossoms of these South African relatives of the spider lily are faintly scented, and are lovely set against orange and crimson fall foliage.