Winter blooming plants to brighten the garden

Winter is a thankfully slow and sleepy season in the garden. Fallen leaves have been cleared away, lawns need less mowing, and busy gardeners can take a breather from the never-ending maintenance chores of the warm growing season.

Once the weather turns cool and cloudy, what better way to chase away the winter doldrums than to walk through your yard and see a splash of color?

This time of year, most nurseries sell favorite bedding plants such as cyclamens, pansies, and primroses, or standard winter-blooming shrubs such as camellias. But are you ready to try something new?

Rather than relying on the old standbys, think outside the box and consider planting one or more of these unique, reliable, and colorful winter-blooming perennials. There’s still time to plant these gems and take advantage of the prime fall planting season.


Helleborus ‘Peppermint Ice’ (Photo from Annie’s Annuals & Perennials,

Commonly known as “Lenten Roses” or “Christmas Roses,” these stunning, long-lived accent plants have large, distinctive, cup- or bell-shaped flowers that face outward or nod downward. They’re not true roses, but are members of the buttercup family. The blossoms come in an interesting range of colors­­—white, cream, pink, reddish, deep purple, even chartreuse—and they’re borne on long stalks that barely rise above the foliage. Once the peak bloom period is over, the flowers persist instead of wilting, and they turn green in color. Hellebores generally need moderate to regular water and rich, well-amended soil. In our hot-summer climate, these beauties should be planted in a shady or partly shady location without afternoon sun, such as on the north or east side of a house or under a deciduous tree. (Use caution where pets or small children are present, since all parts of Hellebores are poisonous if eaten; fortunately, the horrible taste discourages consumption.) Here are a couple of interesting varieties to consider:

Helleborus orientalis. The flowers of this species vary in color and are often purple-speckled; the foliage is attractive and toothed. It’s more tolerant of transplanting than other Hellebores, and will often self sow if in its happy zone.

Helleborus x hybridus. These have been bred for a wide range of flower color and form; especially pretty is the Party Dress group, with its ruffled double flowers. These Hellebores perform better in poor soils than most others; they will even do well in clay soils as long as they’re not water-logged.


Grevillea lanigera ‘Coastal Gem’ at the Fair Oaks Horticultural Center (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

This ancient and attractive genus of flowering plants is native to Australia. They can range in form from spreading groundcovers to mounding shrubs to towering trees. Several Grevillea species perform brilliantly in our Central Valley climate. Their flowers are uniquely shaped; they begin as tight rolls then unfurl to a slender, curved form. The brightly colored, spidery blooms are usually held in compact clusters, and they’re irresistible to hummingbirds. Grevillea leaves can be needlelike, deeply cut and lacy, or stiff and oak-like. Some species bloom in winter; others have their prime bloom season in spring and fall, so choose your plant carefully. Most Grevilleas need well-drained soils, and are best planted in organically amended soil or at the top of a slope; some species are tolerant of clay soils.

Grevillea lanigera ‘Coastal Gem’ (Woolly Grevillea). An excellent, low-growing, compact shrub with small fuzzy bluish green rosemary-like foliage and beautiful bicolor flowers that transition from deep rose to cream. It often flowers from December through spring, and thrives in full sun. It can also tolerate periods of wet soil.

Grevillea rosemarinifolia (Rosemary Grevillea). This large shrub has reddish-pink and cream flowers, and its leaves look like those of its namesake rosemary. Although it bears blooms most heavily fall and winter, it blooms sporadically throughout the year. It’s very adaptable to heat and dry conditions.


These California native shrubs are known for their distinctive reddish bark, stiff glossy leaves, and profuse winter blooms. The clusters of tiny urn-shaped blossoms are favored by hummingbirds, bees, and other beneficial insects. Manzanitas generally prefer poor (rocky or sandy) soils to rich or heavy ones, and they must have good drainage and air circulation. One of the best for our Central Valley growing conditions is:

Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’ (Vine Hill Manzanita). This species is covered with delicate pink blossoms from late winter to early spring. It’s an ideal large shrub for our area, since it is accepting of a wide variety of soils, needs very little summer water, and handles pruning better than other manzanitas.

Fuchsia-Flowering Gooseberry

Fuchsia flowering gooseberry at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)













This showy California native gooseberry (Ribes speciosum) bears a profusion of pendulant scarlet-red flowers in late winter to early spring. The spiky round fruits that follow turn from mellow green to red-orange. The flowers attract hummingbirds, and the spiky fruits are attractive to a variety of birds. The plant itself has an attractive form, with long arching stems covered with small, lobed, bright green leaves. But beware: it’s also very thorny, and makes a good deterrent plant! This gooseberry requires partial shade and well-drained soil, and although it needs no summer water once established, it should be given some hot season irrigation to avoid summer dormancy and keep the foliage green and on the plant throughout the year.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or use our website.

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