I may not have "a mind of winter,” like the snow man in Wallace Stevens' poem of the same name, but it does occur to me that winter is a season of the spirit at least as much as it is a season in the landscape.  Traveler’s Joy,* S.C., has never been gripped by the kind of extreme winter weather that visits northern parts of the country, or not for long at any rate.  However, the inland parts of the upper south are certainly familiar with freezing cold, ice, snow, and the gradual stripping-away of color and density in the environment that accompanies shortened days and weakened light.  I have come to welcome this process as a necessary respite for the heart, the mind, and the senses.  It is an opportunity to disengage from the subjective world and try to be “the listener, who listens in the snow/And, nothing himself, beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Traveler's Joy* in winter

Snowmen aren’t the only ones privileged to experience this paradoxical reality; gardeners know that the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” describes our mid-winter gardens, where the ground that looks colorless and bare to the uninitiated is, to us, rich with the promise of the tender leaves, fragrant flowers and ripening fruit that will emerge from the earth as the calendar inches forward.  Once we can be free of the festive confinement imposed by Christmas traditions and have packed the last glittering ornament off to the attic, you will find us wandering among our bleak, frost-blasted beds and borders with the preoccupied air of mystics.  We are dreaming, planning, thinking, hoping.  We are waiting, with a patience born of familiarity with the natural world.  We don’t dare to predict, but we have definitely learned to trust.

Knowing that waiting can be hard, I have learned to invest my landscape with plants that pay rich dividends, blooming in December, January and February when little else is stirring.  The best of these are fragrant bloomers, like the wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox ‘Concolor’).  This shrub is profoundly innocuous, even at its peak during the growing season, when it looks like a weedy ligustrum sown by a bird.  On that basis I have more than once gone to hoik it out and have caught myself in time.  I finally labeled it and placed it behind showier hydrangeas and a giant Fatsia japonica -- another winter-blooming beauty – which shields ‘Concolor’ from overzealous weed-busters like me.  In that spot it has thrived, as it needs the bit of shelter provided by the fence that backs the border.  (As does the fatsia.)  The wintersweet’s homeliness is forgotten when its stubby, yellow bells scent the frozen garden with the smell of warm honey.

The daphne (Daphne odora) is another fragrant winter-blooming favorite, and there is nothing homely about its glossy foliage or pleasing habit.  Over the years, however, I have steeled myself against becoming too attached to this shrub, as it has earned the reputation (like certain finicky gardenias and rhodendrons) of being suicidal.  The slightest prick, injury or insult may result in sudden death, as I was reminded this past autumn when a beautiful D. odora ‘Variegata’ that flowered happily for many seasons turned brown overnight and expired within days.  To my growing dismay, a strapping Edgeworthia papyrifera that had formed dozens of button-shaped buds by Halloween also gave up the ghost at about the same time.  This edgeworthia was the pride of my garden and had top billing in my winter-blooming pageant; in February its pendant buds opened into tiny star-shaped flowers that released clouds of perfume.  My gardening neighbor, Steve S., suggests that it received too much western sun this summer, and once I’d dug up the shriveled tree and inspected the roots for rot or nematodes (there were none) I was inclined to agree.  Edgeworthias like it on the cool side.  They also abhor damp soil.  When it wasn’t murderously hot this summer, it was raining, and the clay never seemed to dry out.

Thank goodness for the hellebores (Lenten roses) which are tough as nails and bloom as soon as December, in some years.  I sprinkle a bit of granular organic food on them at Thanksgiving if I remember, and when there’s time I try to snip off the spent leaf stalks, but the porcelain cups of white, rose and purple bloom robustly in spite of neglect.  Because the plants are low to the ground and the blossoms dangle, it’s difficult to see and appreciate the beautiful interior traceries of the sepals and the nectaries that resemble tiny chandeliers.  For this reason I made sure to transplant several types to the bed atop our new retaining wall, the area shaded by the giant pecan.  In this way I can appreciate the flowers whenever I’m in the lower garden. 
I sited one of my favorite cultivars in this shady bed, a hybrid called ‘Ivory Prince.’  These were hard to find when they first came out in the trade a few years ago, and I paid what I considered at the time to be an unhealthy sum for a one-gallon plant: $24.  If I’d only been able to delay gratification, I could have waited a couple of seasons and then picked up a ‘prince’ at the big box store for half the price. 

A healthy specimen of Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ is a beautiful sight, and it should be, considering how many crosses were required to produce it in that specialized (and passionate) world of hellebore enthusiasts.  A British grower named David Tristram crossed a seedling of the spectacular Christmas rose cultivar, Helleborus niger ‘Potter’s Wheel,’ with another grower’s hybrid, H. x ericsmithii (you can guess the name of that hybridizer), which was a cross of H. sternii and H. niger.  ‘Potter’s Wheel’ contributed its large, cream-white flowers and sturdy stems to the resulting plant, which also featured H. x ericsmithii’s captivating blue foliage.  I once tried to grow a H. x sternii cultivar named ‘Boughton Beauty’ (which also cost too much).  Its notched silver-blue foliage was irresistible, but that and the shimmering chocolate-y tone of the outer sepals should have tipped me off  that this 'beauty' was too rare for the real world.  I planted it, blinked, and it was gone.  Not just dead, but gone – the dessicated remnants of its unearthly flowers and foliage littering the ground where the spirit had departed for more ethereal climes.   

H. ‘Ivory Prince’ is much better equipped for reality, so long as it’s sited in well-drained, humus-rich soil, and has a good deal of light shade.  It may not be a prima donna, but it still manages to be a stunner, with notched, teal-blue leaves revealing creamy flower-bells set on sturdy, chocolate-colored stems.  The buds are dark mauve, and are held very close to the crowns.

For serious hellebore-lovers, the best book I know of is Hellebores; a Comprehensive Guide, by the Virginia-based garden writer C. Colston Burrell and hellebore grower Judith Knott Tyler, of Pine Knot Farms in VA.  My husband FK was kind enough to put this definitive tome under the Christmas tree for me a couple of years ago, and I am still working my way through it, with great pleasure.

Hellebores.  Daphne.  Wintersweet.  Fatsia.  The names of these winter headliners roll off the tongue like poetry.  They are enough to satisfy me until the bulbs push their noses above ground, with some, like the early narcissus N. ‘February Gold’ and the turquoise leaves of the lady tulips already emerging, despite nighttime temps in the twenties.  As soon as I’m able to look out my window in the morning and see the candy-striped buds of Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’ nodding in the frosty light, I will know that spring is finally here.  And the snowman has melted. 

Lady Jane tulip

Here is Wallace Stevens’ poem in its entirety:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Work Cited:

Burrell, C. Colston & Tyler, Judith Knott.  Hellebores; a Comprehensive Guide.  Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2006.  Print.

Stevens, Wallace.  “The Snow Man.” Twentieth-Century American Poetry.  Ed. Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Schoerke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004. 121-22.  Print.