A Gardening Journal

Winter Beauty Honeysuckle

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If there's any upside to a Winter that has been too long and too cold, it's the fragrant flowers of Winter honeysuckle. In a milder climate, this shrub could be in flower for months. But a cold and long Winter concentrates the season of bloom while also delaying it. Instead of a few blossoms this month, a few the next, all the buds mature to flowers within weeks. More flowers, more fragrance: A large bush could perfume your garden.

 

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Look closely at the picture above. Twigs that bear flowers are a warmer shade of brown than older twigs and branches. The timeline to form them spans two Winters, so pruning isn't intuitive. See both "How to handle it" boxes, below, for the surprisingly broad range of tactics that help the twigs and branches of Lonicera x purpusii  'Winter Beauty' look—and flower—their best.

 

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The flowers are only as large as a fingernail, and appear in tight pairs that are, themselves, paired on opposite sides of the stem. Individual flowers in each pair are tightly adjacent. Because all the flowers face downward, if they open at once, as is the case above my thumb in the shot below, a merry crowd of flowers results.

 

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The buds below my thumb will have more room, because the flowers of the sister pair will have passed before they open.

 

Each flower has five petals—four up, the fifth down, like a tongue—as well as five yellow stamens shaped like Lilliputian bananas. The single pistil is round and much paler. Can you spot it in one of the flowers below?

 

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Here's how 'Winter Beauty' honeysuckle looked in the Winter of 2012 - 13, when a milder season enabled the buds to swell in January but subsequent chill kept them from emerging as flowers until March.

 

Here's how to grow this unusually option-rich shrub:

 

Latin Name

Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty'

Common Name

Winter Beauty honeysuckle

Family

Caprifoliaceae, the Honeysuckle family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous to semi-evergreen shrub that flowers in Winter or early Spring.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 8(9).

Habit

Multi-stemmed and, unless trained, very twiggy and growing as a broad mound.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Six feet tall; usually wider than tall, not least because the long branches tend to arch over. Plus, they root easily if they touch ground, enabling single bushes to mature into thickets. Better when pruned with both sensitivity and brutality. See both "How to handle it" boxes, below, for strategies. 

Texture

Twiggy. Unless trained, dense both in and out of leaf.

Grown for

its flowers, which are among the most sweetly fragrant of Winter- and Spring-flowering shrubs. The five petals are white; the five yellow stamens protrude jauntily. The flowers are small, but bushes growing in full sun are floriferous enough that the show is visual as well as olfactory.

 

its year-old stems, whose warm brown bark contrasts sufficiently with the duller bark of older stems to be a subtle show in itself. The display is distinctly secondary to that of the flowers; you wouldn't grow Lonicera x purpusii just for its twigs.

 

its slender new stems, whose juvenile bark is purple, and is an excellent contrast to the green-with-a-hint-of-blue foliage that is, helpfully for a clearer view, displayed in orderly pairs above the stems. The display is distinctly secondary to that of the flowers; you wouldn't grow Lonicera x purpusii just for its twigs. But the same pruning that concentrates the display of flowers while also providing a shapely look during the warm months also enhances the intensity of the display of these warm-weather twigs. Hooray!

 

its comparative compactness: The parent species of 'Winter Beauty', Lonicera fragrantissima, can mature to twice the size and more of 'Winter Beauty': Ten to fifteen feet high and wide; if allowed to layer, stem tips can extend a bush indefinitely. Pruning can control the size of both parent species as well as 'Winter Beauty'; see the "How to handle it" boxes for options on pruning that enhance the display of flowers as well as the shrub's overall look even when it's not in bloom.

 

its comparative lack of fecundity: One parent species of 'Winter Beauty', Lonicera fragrantissima, is known to self-seed prolifically into native woods, and should not be planted. 'Winter Beauty' has not been reported as being invasive. Perhaps the hybridizing that produced it has, conveniently, also reduced its ability to set fertile seed.

Flowering season

In mild Winters, flowering can occur over two months, beginning in mid-Winter and ending in earliest Spring. Where Winter is colder, the flowering season is shortened to just the end of that interval. In colder Winters still, the flowering season is both shortened as well as delayed. This year, the buds of my 'Winter Beauty' did not even begin swelling until the second week of April, and flowering will have been completed before May. In a mild Winter, buds can begin swelling in January or February, and in warm spells can emerge into flowers from then to April.

 

There are advantages to both the extended and compressed pattern of bloom. With the extended, there aren't many flowers out at a time, but twigs that bear even a few flowers are better than those that are not bearing any at all. Plus, there is a luscious virtue in the sparse scattering of flowers on lengthy and leafless stems. Especially when branches are brought indoors for an arrangement, 'Winter Beauty' provides a Zen purity of denial—a dozen tiny blossoms on a branch three feet long should be quite enough, thank you—that makes them strikingly, contradictorily, voluptuous.

 

With the compressed display, there are more months when the bush is nothing but twigs—at least, outdoors. This is all the more reason to cut branches to force indoors. See "Quirks," below. But when the flowers finally do emerge on the bush itself, their greater number creates a display of both color and fragrance whose concentration and power is a direct result of its brevity.

 

Whether your climate and any given Winter allow a compressed or an extended blooming season, and regardless of whether the shrub's flowers are, in themselves, a thrill, diligent pruning provides additional interest in overall shape as well as a greater consistency of branching detail. See both "How to handle it" boxes, below.

Color combinations 

The white flowers, green leaves, and warm brown young stems of 'Winter Beauty' go with everything.

Plant partners

There aren't that many early-season flowers to begin with, so there are fewer opportunities for companion plants that are in bloom. Depending on the climate and the particular Winter, snowdrops, hellebores, witch hazel, and camellias might also be out. The white of the snowdrops is a perfect match, as would be white forms of hellebore.  

 

'Winter Beauty' looks best with thoughtful pruning and, when in flower, demands close-at-hand viewing as well as inhaling. Nearby plants shouldn't impede access. Vinca would be a groundcover to tolerate both shade and the respectful steps of a gardener, but garden visitors need safer footing, such as a bluestone paver or two.  

 

Although the bland foliage and tolerance for a bit of shade made 'Winter Beauty' a potential candidate to host a Summer-flowering vine, remember that most—clematis in particular—are a mess in the Winter, when 'Winter Beauty' should look its best. Consider, instead, herbaceous vines, such as Clematis recta or Clematis integrifoliaor Matalea obliqua. Or clematis that can be cut down in the Fall, such as C. henryi

 

Perhaps the best partner to any plant with a lot of twigs, and an airy display of flowers when those twigs are bare, would be an evergreen backdrop. Any form and texture will do, but the geometric and coloristic contrast of a clipped yew hedge would be intense.

Where to use it in your garden

Siting 'Winter Beauty' will be a challenge if you don't make the commitment to handle the shrub's pruning responsibly and creatively—see both "How to handle it" boxes, below. Your desire for easy access to the shrub when the weather can be at its sloppiest and chilliest would suggest a location very near paving, or even one of the doors to your house. But unless pruned well, the shrub has nothing to offer when not in flower.  Of course, my recommendation is that you embrace one of the pruning options with both arms: Puzzle solved!

 

If you opt to train 'Winter Beauty' onto a wall, fence, or free-standing frame, siting alongside a deep stretch of pavement provides enough room for training the yearly growth. This will also ensure close access after the training is done and the shrub is in flower. See Option 3 in the second "How to handle it" box for more details.

Culture

Full sun maximizes the floral display, but 'Winter Beauty' is nothing if not tolerant, persisting and flowering in part-shade as well as in a diversity of soils, from dry to moist, including clay. The pruning options in the second "How to handle it" box presume that your shrub is growing vigorously: Siting in full sun, and growing in soil that is rich and well drained, will increase the bush's chances of producing the plentiful growth that makes creative pruning possible.

How to handle it:

The basics

Plant in Spring or Fall, and allow to grow on its own for several years. Given the minimum two-Winter cycle from production of new stems to production of flowers on those stems' matured laterals, be patient about the shrub's somewhat slow start into flowering.  

 

Control of size, or the desire to help improve the often clumsy and congested look of the leafless branches, will usually inspire some pruning by years four or five. Unless you take into account the shrub's particular cycle of growth and bud production—see the second "How to handle it" box, below—pruning can impair or even eliminate flowering. If you don't want to devote the mental energy to one of the more specific pruning strategies, below, just keep the shrub in check by cutting one or more of the major branches back to the base each year. Do this as soon as flowering is completed and before the foliage has emerged, so that you have the clearest view into the base of the shrub and, so, can make your cuts as low as possible.

 

Also be aware of the stems' ability to layer where they touch the ground. Control this by removing lower branches entirely, to give the bush a more upright vase shape or, at least, cutting off any stem tips that seem likely to reach the ground. Alternatively, you could permit some amount of layering, so that you can have small bushes to dig for friends or to donate to plant sales. Anyone who has the opportunity to experience the flowers' fragrance will want a 'Winter Beauty' of their own.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

Where and when to prune 'Winter Beauty' can drastically affect both the look of the shrub overall, and how well it flowers. In both regards, there are helpful similarities between the winter honeysuckle and mophead hydrangeas. For both, stems that emerge directly from the base do not usually flower their first year. Instead, buds form on twigs that have grown from stems that have already survived one Winter. Hydrangeas form buds quickly enough at the tips of these new-twigs-on-old-stems that they mature to flowers that same season. Lonicera x purpusii extends the hydrangea's two-year cycle to three: In the first, new stems grow from the base. In the second, those stems form laterals. Buds form on these new lateral twigs so late in that second year that they don't open until the Winter or early Spring of the third.

 

For both winter honeysuckle and (to a lesser extent) mophead hydrangeas, established stems can produce flowers year after year. Not only can the original stems extend at their tips to produce new laterals—or, even, a crowning top truss of flowers—but, also, laterals that have flowered then produce laterals of their own.

 

Mature bushes, then, have enough stems, and of different ages, that there are plenty of laterals to produce flowers each season. This diverse bounty of new stems and new laterals is somewhat of a fool's gold, however, in that neither the hydrangea nor the honeysuckle looks its best when allowed to enlarge free-range year after year. Both become congested mounds of twigs whose disorderly look detracts significantly from the joy of the flowers themselves. The enhanced appeal of a well-edited branch structure, plus the smaller overall size and denser display of flowers, greatly outweighs the loss of what might otherwise have been an even greater number of flowers borne by an unpruned bush.

 

The trifecta for pruning, therefore, would be to improve the bush's branching structure and control its size, while enhancing or at least not impairing its ability to flower. Happily, there are at least three strategies that score on all three counts. Even better, each shapes the bush into a distinctive overall form it would otherwise lack.

 

 

 

Option 1: To grow 'Winter Beauty' as a more compact free-standing shrub, you can, as above, remove one or more of the oldest branches right after flowering is through, by cutting them off as close to the ground as you can reach. You probably won't need to begin doing this until the shrub is four or five years old.

 

But this steady-state gradualism might not be what's needed. Perhaps you have forgotten to tend your 'Winter Beauty' for several years, or have moved to a property with one that has been long neglected. Or maybe you have been told that you have a flare for the dramatic, which you want to demonstrate by producing a flowering shrub whose display is, for a time, brilliant despite being flower-free, because the usually-messy branches are now, to everyone' amazement, an orderly, modestly-sized group of wand-like stems.

 

Given that 'Winter Beauty' is known, if at all, for its thrilling flowers as well as its lousy branching pattern, to handle the shrub such that the flowers are eschewed and branches are highlighted (and with good reason) is bold, indeed. Further, because such an excellent display of branching can have been achieved only by the intentional sacrifice of the flowers, the inference is that your taste has floated upward from the steamy swamp of flowers—sex organs of plants, don't forget—to the austere but limitless planes of perfect form and structure, ultimate discipline and restraint. You've advanced from hedonist (clever and charming, but still) to visionary; aesthete to Pure One.

 

Whatever the need or whim or goal, never hesitate about renewing an overgrown 'Winter Beauty'. Cut all stems down, as low as possible, in one fell swoop. As always with early-season bloomers, do this right after flowering is through. The season's resultant growth will likely be restricted to a sheaf of unbranched wands with the warm brown bark typical of this shrub's young growth.

 

Unless your growing season is unusually long, they won't mature sufficiently to develop buds that same season. But your shrub may be especially vigorous, your season long or, simply, your luck running strong—and the wands may develop buds their first season without first developing laterals, and bloom the very next Winter into Spring. The result would be wands that are studded with flowers, the antithesis of this shrub's typical twiggy-and-pointilistic habit, with flowers scattered over multi-branched stems. If you were a florist looking for the ultimate rarity for a favored client, flowering wands of 'Winter Beauty' would be difficult to top.

 

The next season, all the wands (at least any that you didn't cut) will grow laterals, which will flower in concert during the following late Winter and Spring.

 

 

Option 2: To form 'Winter Beauty' into a standard, take advantage of the shrub's propensity to produce wand-like basal shoots at any age, regardless of what pruning regime you commit to. Right after flowering is completed, select the one that is the longest as well as the most easily staked to the vertical, and cut all the other branches to the ground. Let the wand grow on its own for a couple of years, branching wherever it pleases, so that it makes progress on thickening into a truck and, also, so that its overall height increases. At any time, remove any other basal growth that the bush produces. Adjust the height and sturdiness of the stake as needed so that the wand's upward growth is secure; renew the ties annually, so that none are old enough to restrict the developing thickness of the wand. When the wand is the height you'd like—four feet at least but, if you're a giant like me, or just because you want the height, see if you can encourage growth to six or even eight feet—pinch the tip after that season's flowers have finished. This will stop or, at least, slow down further upward growth, as well as encourage branching throughout the length of the wand.

 

Now it's also time to clip off the lower side branches to reveal the developing trunk. Leave side branches at the top eighteen to twenty-four inches of the wand, which will become the head of your standard. After flowering is completed, cut the longest of these branches back to a foot; just tip back other branches that are likely to lengthen past the desired radius of the standard. If the overall height is four feet, the radius of the head might be just a foot (for a ball two feet across, overall). If you've been able to extend the wand to eight feet, a radius of two feet is probably more proportional.

 

Whenever you prune, keep in mind the two-year cycle of bud production: You'll need to let young laterals lengthen unimpeded their first year as well as their second. 'Winter Beauty' is not the shrub to standardize if your priority is a head with the smooth contour. Instead, the shape will be shaggy, because you should clip back only branches that have already flowered after each flowering season, while leaving intact branches that have only survived their first winter, so that their new growth can form the buds for next Spring's display. So that the size of the head doesn't increase indefinitely, when you prune off branches, try to cut deep within the mass of branches that are being left to produce next year's flowers. The new laterals that emerge from the stubs are less likely to grow as far outside the head's desired mature radius.

 

No matter the age or size of your standard, the base of the shrub will probably continue to send up shoots. There are three options for handling them. You could clip them away at any time or you could allow them to grow through their first or second Winter, so you can harvest them to force (see "Quirks", below). Or, most adventurously, you could handle them as in Option 1: cutting them all down to the ground. But this time, prune each Spring. If your bush is vigorous overall, this should stimulate an annual sheaf of new wands, which may lengthen to much of the height of the trunk supporting your standard's head. You'll have created a hybrid geometry—a ball atop a vase of basal growth—that will be distinctive year-round, and especially so when the ball is in flower and the basal wands (which, remember, are never older than one year) are not.

 

I use this same tactic with some of my standards of PG hydrangeas. The difference is that PG hydrangea tips will bud and flower all in one season. I pinch the new growth of the pruned heads so as to delay flowering a bit, whereas I leave the new basal shoots unpinched. The basal portion of the shrub flowers first, then the head.

 

 

Option 3: In growing 'Winter Beauty' against a wall or fence, or training it to a free-standing structure, you'll be creating an informal espalier. As with the shaggy-headed 'Winter Beauty' standard, above, the two-year cycle of bud production precludes trained specimens of precise geometry. To achieve that, you'd need to clip off the youngest growth, which is just what must be left in place to form buds.

 

Tie branches to the supporting structure loosely, fanning them outward as low as possible. (You need never encourage upward growth, which will occur naturally. Filling in the sides and the bottom of the screen of growth is what takes dedication.) Tie lower branches no lower than a gentle upward slant; growth usually slows or even stops if branches are tied horizontally or at a downward angle. As lower branches have lengthened as far as desired, then retie them lower to complete the espalier's bottom.

 

If there's enough room, allow each season's growth to lengthen freely, regardless of whether it projects outward from the desired plane of the shrub. After growth has ceased each Fall, gently tie these young stems back into the screen, to create a flatter, thinner, and more attractive profile from Winter through the flowering season to come. Because the desire to put nose to blossom can't be resisted, you'll need to site your screen of 'Winter Beauty' far enough back from lawn or a walkway that the protruding young growth isn't awkward, but close enough to allow the necessary access during the flowering season. Plus, you'll need plenty of access for pruning (after flowering is through) and retying (after growth has ceased in the Fall), so don't introduce companion plants close enough that they would be an impediment. Perhaps the ideal situation would be to espalier 'Winter Beauty' alongside paving that is so deep that the loss of access to two or three feet of payment each Summer won't create a bottleneck.

 

If the dimensions to be filled by your screen of 'Winter Beauty' are large enough—say, ten feet tall by fifteen wide—you might never need to prune to control overall size: Just keep tying new growth outward. More often, pruning for size control will someday be needed. Do this right after flowering and before new growth is emerging. This window might be narrow; it's better to cut the flowering season short than to attempt the work when new foliage is getting in the way.  

 

If your screen of 'Winter Beauty' is old enough to have reached mature size, it may well be old enough to need some general rethinking. Normally, you'll be carefully untying branches with the eye to gently repositioning them for more even coverage. Begin with the lowest branch at one side, and work your way up, over, and down to the lowest branch on the other; only one or two branches will be untied at a time. You may find that some branches have become less productive, and can best be cut off at their base. Their places in the screen can start to be fllled by tying in some of the basal wands; cut off any that are not needed. Or your bush's older branches may combine a still-satisfying profusion of flowers with a creaking venerability, such that new basal growth would be a distraction and more formal considerations of even coverage or overall balance would be irrelevant. Cut off any and all unnecessary basal wands. As you work, don't forgot to shorten peripheral growth to keep your screen of 'Winter Beauty' in bounds. Having grown the bush for enough years to fill in the screen and then some, you'll have a good sense of how fast your 'Winter Beauty' grows, and how vigorously it responds to pruning. "Keeping it in bounds" may mean pruning back two or three feet more so that, at least for a couple of years, the shrub's branches aren't once again out of bounds.

Quirks and special cases 

All Winter- and Spring-flowering shrubs and trees are candidates for forcing. The earlier the normal season of bloom, the quicker and easier the forcing. 'Winter Beauty' should be as easy, then, as witch hazel or forsythia. Bring cut branches to a cool spot indoors; keep the cut ends submerged in a couple of inches in water by setting the branches in almost any sturdy and deep container, such as a bucket or dishpan. If practical, cover the branches themselves for two days with wet toweling. Depending on the size of the branches, beach towels could be just the thing: In the cool weeks during which forcing would be enjoyable, you certainly won't be swimming in open water. The ideal location for this preparatory stage of forcing would be an unheated sunroom, garage, or basement, so that you don't need to worry about water drips and spills as you remoisten the towels. The coolness of the room will enable the towels to stay moist longer between remoistenings. This direct moisture is reported as softening the protective scales of the buds, which speeds flower emergence when the branches are brought into light and warmth.

 

After a couple of days, remove the towelling. Recut the ends of the branches to expose fresh surface for water absorption, then place them back in their bucket. Maintain the water level in the bucket. Buds should begin to swell within the week, with the white of the flower petals evident, too.

 

Two or three days before you'd like flowers to begin to emerge fully, cut off another inch of the stems. Bring the branches into light and warmth, arranging them in the vase of your choice. 

Downsides

Unless trained, 'Winter Beauty' is a twiggy haystack of a shrub with just the one season of interest, when in flower in the chilly weeks from late Winter to early Spring. The branching pattern of untrained or hacked-back shrubs is not attractive, with awkward elbows and stumps amid the arching young stems. Thoughtless pruning can impair flowering, and it might take a year or even two for fuller flowering to resume. Plus, there is no Fall foliage color of note, and the bush has a neutral presence when in leaf.

 

On the other hand, if you're able to commit to any of the thoughtful pruning strategies in both "How to handle it" boxes, above, the difference in year-round appeal is enormous, and the victory sublime: You'll have transformed a shrub with a single glorious season followed by three mediocre ones, into a shrub with year-round integrity highlighted by a spectacular early-Spring floral display.   

Variants

'Winter Beauty' is the only cultivar of Lonicera x purpusii that's readily available in North America. 'Spring Romance' is a back-cross of L. x purpusii with L. standishii var. lancifolia. It flowers later into Spring, and is reported as being more compact. To my knowledge, it is available from nurseries in the United Kingsdom.

Availability

Online.

Propagation

By cuttings and by layering.

Native habitat

Lonicera x purpusii is a hybrid of L. fragrantissima and L. standishii, both native to China. In 1962, it was backcrossed in England with L. standishii. 'Winter Beauty' was selected as a particularly free-flowering seedling

This cultivar's parentage, history, and naming span the globe. It derives from two Chinese species; see "Native habitat," below. They were brought back to England in the 19th century, and by the 20th century were also growing in Germany, where L. x purpusii was identified at the Darmstadt Botanical Garden as a naturally-occurring hybrid between them. The genus Lonicera, itself, is named for Adam Lonicer (also spelled Lonitzer), a German botanist. "Purpusii" honors the brothers Carl Albert and Joseph Anton Purpus, who were German plant collectors. In the late 1870s, they botanized together in what is now British Columbia, Canada. In the 1890s, Carl Albert was the first botanist to explore much of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Baja California. He then moved to Mexico, where he lived the rest of his life.

 
 
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