In January I go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. Most people spend the darkest days of winter dreaming of the bright garden colours of summer. For me, however, it’s the time of year when my garden comes into flower. Many of the plants I grow come from Australia and South Africa’s winter rainfall regions, hence they like to flower when it gets a bit colder and wetter. The brightest of these southern hemisphere winter blooms are those of the correas. They are known as Australian fuchsias, due to their nodding bell-like flowers, and fill the gap left by their summer-flowing namesake perfectly. Although reminiscent of fuchsias, they are more closely related to skimmia and choisya; coming in shades from deep scarlet through pink and apple green to buttermilk yellow and pure white.
The genus was named by Henry Andrews for José Francisco Correia da Serra, a friend of Sir Joseph Banks. Banks originally discovered the plant while serving as botanist on the Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour. Bright and colourful, yet easy to grow and propagate, they were inevitably a hit in the conservatories of 18th century Britain; though not quite as commonly grown today. They have fallen out of favour and been replaced as winter houseplants by gaudy cyclamen and phalaenopsis orchids. They are deemed by most as far too tender for the garden, probably because they come from Australia.
Correa pulchella (often seen for sale under the name ‘Pink Mist’), for instance, stands up against any cyclamen when in flower; mine is currently dripping in dusky pink bells that seem vivid in the weak winter sunlight. Not quite as hardy as other species, I bring it in on the harshest of nights; when at its best it takes pride of place on the kitchen windowsill.
Correa backhouseana and C. alba, however, stay outside all year round for me in North Wales (they are hardy to about -5C). Both have pale flowers. C. backhouseana’s nod, like luminous greeny bells. C. alba’s four petalled, star-shaped flowers are pale pink or white, and shine from a background of metallic-grey foliage; they look lovely on a moonlit winter’s night.
By growing them in part shade and ideally with a canopy of foliage above them to protect them from frost, they will brighten up the worst of your winter. C. alba has another trick up its sleeve. Coming from coastal sand dunes of Tasmania and southeastern Australia, it shrugs off salt winds easily and will even cope well with salt spray.
One that definitely needs some shade is C. lawrenceana, the mountain correa. Less floriferous than the others, it will eventually form a large shrub or small tree. Elegant, with its glossy foliage and lime-yellow flowers, I think its most endearing feature is the gingery indumentum (dust) on its pedicel (the stem leading to the flower) and hypanthium (floral cup).
But of them all I love Correa glabra v. turnbullii (sometimes sold as C. schlectendallii) the best. It was the first correa I grew and its red and green livery reminds me of sweet wrappers. Its leaves, when crushed, smell exquisitely lemony too. Capable of dealing with some frost for very short periods, I grow it as a potted plant, treating it the same as C. pulchella. I know of people in some of Britain’s milder counties who grow it outside with overhead protection to keep the frost from settling on its leaves, and encouraged by their success, I may end up giving it a go outside full time myself.
On my winter weekends, when I do get to see a little daylight, it is an absolute joy to have so many flowers, in shades normally reserved for summer, in the garden. They lift my spirits, giving me the feeling of being somewhere just a little warmer and carry me through to the longer days ahead.
• Robbie Blackhall-Miles is a modern day plant hunter’s propagator and gardener. He is personally interested in ancient families of plants and blogs about these on his website Fossil Plants. He also tweets as @fossilplants.