Jo Arnell injects some mood-lifting yellows into the winter garden 

When most of the colour has withered back into the earth and the natural world is dark and dormant it can seem a bit bleak outside. We can admire the tracery of trees and the stark beauty of the leafless landscape, some of us have smart structural evergreens and topiary that may gleam with frosted effects, but nothing lifts the heart like a cheerful burst of colour. We’ve celebrated with red and green, but Christmas is over and it’s about time for something fresh and cheerful. From palest primrose through to bright and buttery, yellow is the most joyful and welcome of all the colours. So if the actual sun won’t warm us, let’s substitute its golden glow with a garden full of botanical sunlight.

Shrubs, trees and ‘Evergolds’

Yellow leaves in plants can be a tricky thing. Sometimes a shrub with yellow leaves is actually telling you that it’s not very well or deficient in nutrients – literally off colour, but there are plants that have been bred to have yellow in their leaves as a variegation – Elaeagnus ‘Limelight’ has a yellow centre to its leaves, as does the holly Ilex ‘Golden King’ and low growing Euonymus ‘Emerald ’n Gold’ has a wide golden edge with a green centre to its leaves. There are some evergreen shrubs that have completely yellow leaves – a variety of Mexican Orange called Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’ has attractive chartreuse coloured foliage – when in the right light. It does best in semi-shade; in full sun the leaves can bleach and scorch and it starts looking on the sickly side of yellow.

A few brazen shrubs even flower in winter and as an added bonus many of the early flowers are scented. Pollinating insects are scarce, so plants have to work extra hard to attract in as many as they can. Often the flowers appear on bare stems, long before any leaves start to grow. Once the leaves do appear these shrubs tend to revert to being straggly nothings and fade into the background once again, but right now they are the stars of the show. Winter Sweet (Chimonanthes praecox) is one of these humble bushes, with small, pale yellow flowers perfumed with hints of citrus. 

Cornus mas is another with early blossom, lighting up a woodland or shady border with its delicate lemony flowers. It is a little bit fussy, so plant it in moist, humous-rich soil and grow in a sheltered place. For most of the year Mahonia japonica is a large and prickly and fairly uninspiring evergreen, but in the depths of winter its thick stems explode into impressive yellow flower spikes that brighten the darkest of days and smell of lily-of-the-valley. Mahonia x media ‘Charity’ is one of the biggest and boldest to grow.

Witch Hazel – Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’ has scented flowers that climb its bare branches like little yellow spiders. It also has good autumn foliage and although it grows slowly it will get large in time, so makes a good specimen shrub.

Exotic looking and slightly tender, the fast growing evergreen Acacia dealbata (Mimosa) with its swathes of scented yellow pom-pom blossoms is a sight to lift the spirits in cold winter days. Grow Acacia in a sheltered place and mulch it well; it is native to Australia and may be rather put out to find itself blooming in the wrong hemisphere. 

The golden stems of the golden bamboo, Phyllostachys aureosulcata gleam in winter light and provide a strong, architectural and vertical shape in the garden. They are useful in contemporary spaces and also look good in pots. Bamboo provides an instant screen too, but be careful not to plant an invasive variety – look for clump forming types, not those that send out invasive runners. Luckily this one is a clumper, not a runner.

Golden carpets

You really can’t go far wrong with early spring bulbs – and some of them are very early indeed. It is truly a joy to behold them in their Wordsworthian hosts spreading out among the trees or lining the verges and patches of municipal grassed areas. This is how they are best seen; in massed throngs, making the most of the increasing daylight before the dense canopy of tree leaves eventually closes over them. 

Bright yellow Aconites and yolky Crocuses will naturalise as quickly as Narcissi and are among the first signs that tell us spring is not so far away. Daffodils are not long behind – sometimes even popping up in the winter. There’s the wonderful and aptly named ‘February Gold’ narcissus that is always reliably early and a good size for naturalising in the grass, as it doesn’t get too big and floppy.

Climbers

There aren’t too many yellow flowering climbers that bloom in winter, but Jasminum nudiflorum, (Winter Jasmine) is probably the most well known. It is more of a scrambler or spineless shrub than a climber, but with patience and support, can be trained against a wall or fence, where it might half-heartedly climb – and then most likely tumble down, like a waterfall of star-studded stems. Unlike its summer cousin, Winter Jasmine is not strongly scented, but it makes up for this with a long-lasting show of little yellow flowers through the winter months.

“A few brazen shrubs even flower in winter and many of the early flowers are scented” 

Coronilla valentina glauca citrina (to give it its full name, rather than the disconcerting and undeserved – from what I can surmise, common name of ‘bastard senna’) is an evergreen wall shrub or lax climber (i.e. needs support) that has pale yellow pea-like flowers that contrast prettily with the blue tints of its small glaucous leaves. It seems to flower on and off sporadically throughout the year, but noticeably in winter. I will also mention a Clematis called C. cirrhosa ‘Wisley Cream’ that could almost be the palest yellow. This winter flowering Clematis has the added bonus of fragrant blooms.

Hedera helix ‘Goldchild’ is a small leaved ivy that will clothe a large expanse, its classic ivy shaped leaves edged with pale yellow. All Ivies are self-clinging plants with probing aerial roots that stick fast onto many surfaces – trees, walls, sheds, ornaments, slow moving gardeners. Being a woodland climber, it thrives in the shade and is a wonderful source of food and shelter for wildlife, but do not plant against house walls or brick buildings, as the aerial roots can penetrate cracks and joints and may cause damage.

I would never advocate that we fill our gardens with yellow plants – I’m aware that it can be less than tasteful – but every garden needs a boost and a pick-me-up at this time of year and a bold and jaunty splash of sunshine yellow could be just the thing.

Jo’s 2020 gardening courses are now booking, see hornbrookmanor.co.uk or
call 01233 861149 for details.

Primrose

Primrose

Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’

Choisya ternata ‘Sundance’

Witch hazel

Witch hazel

Bowles Golden grass

Bowles Golden grass

Golden grass at Wisley RHS garden

Golden grass at Wisley RHS garden

Cornus mas

Cornus mas

Mahonia

Mahonia

‘Evergold’ conifer

‘Evergold’ conifer

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