If your garden has been looking a little sad, plan now for a more verdant winter next year
Gardening is a fascinating art form. As much as it is about experiencing tranquillity and nature, it is also about the excitement of escapism that these enclosed ecosystems can bring. In the UK, perhaps the ultimate in horticultural escapism is the subtropical garden style, where plants and design features are cleverly combined to create the illusion of being transported to a tropical island.
Sadly, many exotic-style gardens rely on herbaceous perennials or bedding plants which, despite providing a riot of colour and structure in summer, can leave these schemes looking grey and dreary come winter. However, there are some hardy jungle-effect plants out there that positively come into their own in the dark days of winter, seemingly defying all the laws of nature to create the look of a rainforest floor even when there is snow and frost on the ground. If it’s jungle escapism you are after, here are three of the best plants to help you get there.
First up, Arum italicum, a European woodland native that would not look out of place in the most far-flung jungle. Just as the rest of the garden wanes into winter slumber, these arrow-shaped leaves, with almost reptilian patterning, begin to unfurl from beneath the soil to create a glossy carpet about 30cm high. As if that weren’t enough, they also have stunning hooded flowers in the summer. Then, once the leaves have died away, you get shiny red berries which, despite being toxic to humans, are loved by blackbirds. ‘Chameleon’, ‘Edward Dougal’ and ‘Uniquity’ are particularly striking varieties.
If you want a plant that hugs the ground even closer, it’s got to be some of the more weird and wonderful cyclamen. Their intricately patterned leaves are marvels of nature. They are generous enough to top them with a carpet of elegant flowers, too. Seek out the tessellated leaves of Cyclamen hederifolium‘Bowles Apollo’, the pink-fringed foliage of C mirabile ‘Tilebarn Nicholas’, or the palmate leaves of C rohlfsianum – and thank me next winter.
Finally, if its evergreen structure you want, buy a hellebore. Avoid the garden staples and hunt down a Helleborus multifidus subsp hercegovinus for fountains of ferny foliage so deeply divided into apple green frills you almost wouldn’t recognise it. Come winter, alien-like flowers crown them in an equally verdant green shade. If you want something darker and moodier, H x sternii ‘Ashwood Strain’, produces water-lily shaped flowers that nod above silver and blue-grey leaves. If you love the exotic summer bulb arisarum, then H lividus ‘Purple Marble’ is as close as you can get to that look, with the benefit of delicate, white flowers to boot.
So, if you have a patch of shady ground that looks a little sad come winter, combine these three plants for the miracle of a rainforest understorey that arrives just as the frosts set in.