Plants that shine in January

Flower buds of Edgeworthia chrysantha. Photo by Kit Flynn. 


By Kit Flynn

January can be depressing for gardeners here in the Carolina Piedmont. It’s cold, the sun is still relatively low and skies tend towards grey rather than Carolina blue. However, there are still some plants that I thoroughly enjoy – and the trick to gardening here is to have something of interest year-round.

Most of the plants listed in this article are evergreen. In a warmish January, flowers, such as camellia blooms, appear – only to be dashed by a polar vortex and its relatives.

Palms are a super addition to the garden, providing a different shape from pine trees and other conifers. A Trachycarpus fortunei, aka the windmill palm, covered with a layer of snow seems to be incongruous but is rather bewitching, provided January can provide some snow. Palms are easy to grow: Site them in the sun, give them water during the first growing season and sit back to watch them grow.

The hardiest palm we can grow in this area is Rhapidophyllum hystrix, the needle palm. Despite its scientific name, this palm is very slow to take off and is one that is easy to plant incorrectly as it seemingly takes forever to reach its full growth; because it takes so long to take up its eventual space, I have a tendency to fill up that space surrounding it with other plants. Eventually, the needle palm will claim its rightful area – to the sacrifice of those plants. Full grown, the needle palm is glorious twelve months of the year.

Ferns look great in the winter. They don’t shrivel and cower when temperatures fall well below freezing. Now my ferns tend to fall into two genuses: Athyrium niponicum (Japanese Painted Fern) and the commonly offered Dryopteris. There are many different genuses found under the notation of “fern” and I am not a fern expert. Generally, I use ferns to fill up empty shady places, such as under the large climbing rose, ‘Peggy Martin’, aka the Katrina Rose. This winter they have looked lively and perky, two characteristics that I appreciate in January.

Assorted ferns under Rosa ‘Peggy Martin’. Photo by Kit Flynn.

The Edgeworthia chrysantha takes a prominent place in my garden starting in December when the buds appear. Now these buds are very decorative – and they do not flinch when the temperature falls to 17°, only to burst forth in late February or early March.

A quarter century ago, I happily discovered Edgeworthia when there were two species: E. chrysantha and E. papyrifera. I chose five E. papyrifera, a species that is almost impossible to find today because these two species have merged into one: E. chrysantha. Many qualified horticulturalists feel there is no difference between the two. I can only state that my five E. papyrifera and my one E. chrysantha are different. The former are smaller, more delicate versions of the latter, having smaller buds and are only about two-thirds the size.

The Fatshedera, the result of a marriage between English ivy and fatsia, looks great even when the temperature plummets. Now I avoid English ivy at all costs but I’m a huge fan of its cousin, which looks great on a support system – not a tall trellis as it lacks an ability to climb. It will get those strange fatsia blooms in autumn that somehow add to its appeal. It has all the positive qualities of fatsia minus the awful ones of English ivy.

January is a depressing month for camellias as the low temperatures manage to turn the blooms brown. Fortunately, it’s a bit too early for the japonicas to start blooming in the garden – when I purchase camellias, I’m always careful to research when particular varieties bloom. There’s no point nurturing a camellia whose flowers turn brown consistently in January unless you favor the color of brown.

A January blooming japonica probably will work better in Alabama than it does here, considering we can get a brutal cold snap lasting several days this month. Fortunately, sasanqua blooms have begun to peter out by the onset of the new year so we don’t have to worry about them. Camellia blooms are able to withstand temperatures in the high 20°s without turning brown so my suggestion is to purchase japonicas that flower in February or March.

Helleborus foetidus, aka stinking hellebore, begins to put out new chartreuse growth in January. Now I am not a chartreuse lover and would never wear it but it’s a dynamite color in the garden. Early in February, it will exhibit chartreuse-colored flowers that I enjoy far more than those exhibited by H. x hybridus. In the first place, I like the looks of the plant with its rather lacy leaves. Yes, it does seed a lot but the plants are shallow rooted so they are easy to pull out. Secondly, in the summer when the leaves of H. x hybridus are flat on the ground, obviously in distress, H. foetidus still looks happy as a clam.

I resent when plants cast guilt on me due to climatic conditions out of my control.

Why do I go through this monthly exercise? I have a saying: Any idiot can have a lovely garden in April and May – and count me in as such an idiot. It’s a lot harder to look presentable in a soggy, cold January under grey skies. Train your eyes to see some of these plants you overlook during the heavy gardening month when our eyes are trained on flowering plants; you will appreciate their contribution to the garden in January.

These January plants work hard so give them the equivalent of a pat on the back.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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