February is the month when shrubs and trees that greeted winter with bare branches and tight little buds begin opening bright blossoms and filling neighbourhoods with fragrance.
The Chinese witch-hazel (Hamamelis mollis) is one of the most spectacular, especially because the yellow forms of those spidery flowers are usually exceptionally fragrant. Other witch-hazel species and the orange or red hybrids are often non-fragrant. Witch-hazels are generally slow-growing, tolerate many soils - and their flowers, like most winter blooms, are long-lasting.
It's tempting to cut flowering witch-hazel branches for the house. But these should be kept small because heavy pruning can trigger root suckers.
Another fragrant shrub that begins producing upright yellow flower spikes in early January is Mahonia charity.
It's a prickly, stiff-looking, shade-tolerant evergreen that can grow six feet (two metres) tall so fits well behind shorter plants. It forms a circular plate of leaves with its flower spikes upright in the centre.
Not everyone recognizes February daphne (Daphne mezereum) when they see its leafless branches covered with pale to bright pink flowers).
But it's not just a standout for beauty; daphne fragrance is absolutely bewitching and far-reaching too.
It's a small bush, about four feet (1.3 metres) tall and wide and very suitable for container living due to size. When the flowers are spent, red berries begin forming. These are very toxic. Rarely, February daphne flowers are white and produce yellow berries.
A popular evergreen that flowers towards the end of February is pieris. This is easy to grow, handles shade well and has a garden presence for several months because it begins forming big racemes of buds in December. One of the most popular is "forest fire," which has white flowers and green foliage with bright red new shoots. A beautiful red-flowered one is "valley valentine." Many dwarf forms are available that are suitable for containers.
Like pieris, the small pink buds of the "white forsythia" (Abeliophyllum distichum) are clustered thickly on long, brown wands and beautiful for many weeks before the flowers open. These are hugely fragrant, starry white flowers.
White forsythia is hardy, grows to about five feet (1.5 metres) and handles most well-drained soils. If you come across it, it's well worth having.
Another hugely fragrant and not well-known shrub is "winter sweet" (Chimonanthus praecox). This opens pale yellow bells with a central scarlet blotch by the beginning of February. It's easily grown from seed but to keep it growing well, it needs the shelter of a wall where it can reach 10 feet (three metres) or more.
The seed is most easily obtained from garden clubs and plant societies. In summer it produces large, lustrous leaves that some people admire and others find boring. This shrub grows big enough to handle a summer-flowering clematis for an extra season of interest.
In a sense, the contorted hazel (Corylus contorta) is a winter shrub, grown for its twisted corkscrew branches. But by December, tight little catkins appear and by the end of February have opened up into long, yellow flowering catkins. Because the branches are so corkscrewed, these catkins are much closer together than on regular hazel trees and much more decorative since the contorted hazel becomes a mass of yellow catkins with no gaps.