White flowers at the forest’s edge

What strange bedfellows this odd spring has arranged. After early cold, one flower is weeks late, while another arrives on schedule in the warmth of more recent days. And so, along roadsides in mid April are splendid white flowers that must be closely observed to discern if they are invasives, or natives.

Hundreds of Callery pears seedlings line this fence row in rural northern Virginia.

Hundreds of Callery pears seedlings line this fence row in rural northern Virginia.

First, in late March came the pears (Pyrus calleryana, above and below), seedlings of the ubiquitous ‘Bradford’ mostly, but also from ‘Chanticleers’ and ‘Aristocrats’, I suspect. Planting in local landscapes of the lovely, but vigorously invasive flowering tree has subsided, but the progeny live on, spreading along fence rows and highways, and in unmanaged meadows.

Flower of the Callery pear

Flower of the Callery pear

More recently, pears have been joined in flower at the forest’s edge by our native serviceberries (Amelanchier canadensis, below), which are equally beautiful but not so abundant. In this area of northwestern Virginia, pear seedlings greatly outnumber the serviceberries, which are not scarce, but are in no danger of being labelled invasive.

Serviceberry flowering in mid April

Serviceberry flowering in mid April

While the blooms are similar in appearance, the reliable test to identify pear and serviceberry is symmetry. The pear has it, the serviceberry doesn’t. If the tree’s branching is compact, it is a pear. Even at the wood’s edge the symmetry of the pear is apparent, which was a good part of its consumer appeal.

Serviceberry blooms along the wood's edge in my garden.

Serviceberry blooms along the wood’s edge in my garden.

I can be grudging stubborn to jump on bandwagons, but I am on board with this one. While the branching of serviceberry is perhaps too unmannerly for some situations, it is a much more responsible choice for the garden. Perhaps a dogwood will be more appealing (the native, hybrids, or Chinese) or a redbud. The answer is not native or non-native to my thinking, but a good choice rather than a poor one.

Spring garden tour – day 2

With flowering of early magnolias and cherries delayed by the frigid late winter, today, in mid April everything is blooming. Well, not everything, but enough to salve the soul of the harried gardener. With a poor start to the spring clean up, messes that should have been taken care of weeks ago have been tidied up only recently. This garden is a challenge even in a good year, but finally, the end is in sight and I’m more into the puttering stage where nothing must be done this minute. This is what I do best, work a bit at a time with long naps in between.

Already, there have been too many troubles in the garden this spring, though none as heartbreaking as the losses a year ago. Mophead hydrangeas have been injured by cold, again. ‘Endless Summer’ and other blue remontant (reblooming on new wood) hydrangeas have died back substantially, though not to the roots as happened last year. Lacecap and Oakleaf hydrangeas suffered no injury at all, just as a year ago. While newly planted gardenias have died again, paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, below) have fared better this spring, though there will be only a single flower when there should hundreds.

Of seven large shrubs, only one partial flower has survived the winter. Typically, there would be hundreds.

Of seven large shrubs, only one partial flower has survived the winter. Typically, there would be hundreds. Compare to the full flower, below.

Edgeworthia beginning to bloom in mid-March

I think that I will be completely over these troubles in another week as Japanese maples leaf out and large leaf hostas cover over the few piles of leaves that remain. There are likely to be a few more dead branches to prune than is typical, but I don’t anticipate any big problems. Today, and again a few days from now, we’ll not be bothered by these troubles. We’ll just enjoy the blooms, and worry some other day.

Sulfureum euphorbia

The spring flowering epimediums are splendid for a few weeks, and then they become sturdy plants with pleasant, but not exceptional foliage. They don’t seem to mind the extreme dry shade of the side garden.

 

Glory of the Snow

Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa) has spread down the hillside. A few handfuls of the small bulbs have become hundreds. These don’t interfere with anything, so I’m not complaining.

 

Ogon spirea

The foliage and flowers of Ogon spirea are delightful, but it grows an ill mannered form to the point that annually I consider cutting it out. In a far back corner this unruly shrub is well suited. At the front, not so much.

 

Fritillaria

I am now discovering some of the bulbs that were planted last autumn that I had completely forgotten about. I’m overjoyed that one was this group of fritillarias.

 

Grecian windflower

There are many fewer windflowers than there would be if I did not constantly mistake them for weeds after they are finished flowering. Despite my worst efforts, these continue to spread, just not as densely as they would if I left them alone.

 

Beyond words

There are days in spring when a garden’s beauty is nearly beyond description. But, not this garden, which typically in early April is somewhere between disaster and paradise. One part can be lovely, the next an eyesore, and so it is for another few weeks until the messes are cleaned up and enough foliage has grown to disguise what I don’t get around to. Then, it is not so bad.

Another lovely hellebore in early April

Another lovely hellebore in early April

With warmer temperatures and longer days of sunlight, the garden has suddenly burst into spring. Today, there is no other story to tell, no lessons to be taught, and perhaps the narrative will be somewhat less wordy. There are too many flowers and too little time to update all, so today we’ll let the pictures do the talking. Certainly, there will be too little space and time to complete our journey through the garden today, so the completion will wait until another day.

Enjoy. There is no better time to be in the garden.

Dorothy Wycoff is the most vigorous pieris in the garden. It is planted at the intersection of the driveway and path to the rear garden so that bees must be avoided in early spring.

Dorothy Wycoff is the most vigorous pieris in the garden. It is planted at the intersection of the driveway and path to the rear garden so that bees must be avoided in early spring. I often recommend against planting Pieris beside a walk or drive because of the hordes of ravenous bees in early spring, but here it is. For a few weeks I’ll detour the long way around.

With dark red new growth Katsura is bound to be a favorite. So far it appears tolerant of clay soils.

With dark red new growth Katsura is bound to be a favorite. The flowers are also exceptional, and so far it appears vigorous and tolerant of clay soils.

 

The variegated Little Heath

The variegated Little Heath is more touchy than others. Without exceptional drainage and just the right sun exposure it can struggle. But, it’s a wonderful small pieris.

Brouwer's Beauty is a hybrid of the Japanese and native American pieris. It is sturdy, but slightly less floriferous and blooms are not as pendulous as other pieris varieties.

Brouwer’s Beauty is a hybrid of the Japanese and native American pieris. It is sturdy, but slightly less floriferous and blooms are not as pendulous as other pieris varieties.

Snowdrift pieris is exceptional in bloom, ordinary after flowering

Snowdrift pieris is exceptional in bloom, ordinary after flowering with unremarkable foliage compared to others. One Snowdrift has declined in health starting in autumn, and it’s unlikely to survive the spring.  Pieris as a whole are not ideally suited to heavy clay soils, though they can be planted to encourage drainage with good results. I suggest Dorothy Wycoff, Katsura (based upon limited experience), and the compact growing Cavatine in areas with clay soils, though these must not be planted where soil stays damp.

 

FebruaryGold occasionally flowers in February, but rarely in April

February Gold occasionally flowers in February, but rarely in April. Usually, it is a week or two earlier than larger daffodils, but this spring it began flowering only a day or two earlier. The smaller daffodils spread more quickly than larger types, and the smaller bulbs are less costly, so February Gold and Tete a Tete are great to get started adding early spring color.

One Winter daphne suffered injury to uppermost flower buds, while a second escaped injury. Both are flowering in early April when late February or early March is more typical.

One Winter daphne suffered injury to uppermost flower buds, while a second escaped injury. Both are flowering in early April when late February or early March is more typical.

Leatherleaf mahonia often flowers in February, but more commonly in early March.

Leatherleaf mahonia often flowers in February, but more commonly in early March. In recent years I have enjoyed the winter flowering ‘Winter Sun, and ‘Charity’, but leatherleaf remains a marvelous plant. The winter flowering mahonias are less likely to be pollinated be bees, so there are fewer of the grape-like fruits. But, this makes leatherleaf more likely to sprout seeds elsewhere.

Ogon winter hazel (Corylopsis spicata 'Ogon')  flowering in early April

Ogon winter hazel (Corylopsis spicata ‘Ogon’) flowering in early April. In my garden Ogon is more floriferous than Buttercup winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora)

Okame cherry is the earliest to flower

Okame cherry is the earliest to flower, often blooming several weeks before the more common Yoshino and Kwanzan cherries.

At the forest’s edge in early spring

The flower of skunk cabbage in late March

The flower of skunk cabbage in late March

There is no more curious treasure in our damp woodlands than the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus, flower above, foliage below). The unremarkable foliage reminds of a large leafed, green hosta, but it is the late winter flower that is most odd. The bloom is recognizable only if you know precisely where the skunk cabbages are located since it barely emerges through the soil and leaf clutter. Though I’ve seen this only in photos, the plant emits enough heat to melt small amounts of snow so that pollinators can find the flower in late winter.

Skunk cabbage in leaf in early spring

Skunk cabbage in leaf in early spring

I am challenged to smell just about anything, pleasant or not, so I cannot attest to it, but the scent of rotting flesh attracts flies and carrion beetles to pollinate the flower. The flower has no petals, and barely emerging from the ground it is hardly a typical bloom. But, skunk cabbage is an interesting find if you happen to have a damp spot in your native forest.

Small flowers of spicebush in early April

Small flowers of spicebush in early April

As I’ve planted native shrubs in this garden through the years, there has been no reason to plant Spicebush (Lindera benzoin, above) since the shrubs grow abundantly in this narrow section of forest. This is the primary understory shrub beneath maples and tulip poplars, and for much of the year it is an indistinct, green leafed shrub. The tiny yellow flowers catch the eye in early spring, and clusters of red berries in autumn simplify its identification.

Red berries on Spicebush in early autumn

Red berries on Spicebush in early autumn

A not so wonderful flower that is widespread in the neighboring forest is on the native red maple (Acer rubrum, below). This maple is also commonly referred to as swamp maple since it is often found in damp ground, and in fact the autumn foliage color is rarely red on native trees. Instead, the foliage turns a weak yellow that is not nearly as attractive as native Sugar maples (Acer saccharum) and many other native forest trees. The flowers are the primary source of my early spring allergies, so I would be happiest if they did not flower at all. And, a lack of flowers could eliminate the many thousands of seedlings that pop up in the garden in another month.

Red maple flowers in late March

Red maple flowers in late March

Spring peepers, bullfrogs, and magnolias

Yes, spring is here, though today is quite cool and cloudy and I will not be dragged outdoors this evening for any reason. Now, the spring peepers are much quieter than on a sunny afternoon when I wonder if they number in the hundreds, or many more.

We've seen this large bullfrog occasionally at the edge of the front pond, and he never seems excited to see us.

We’ve seen this large bullfrog occasionally at the edge of the front pond, and he never seems excited to see us.

The photo above is most definitely not a peeper, but a bullfrog scooped out of the front pond while cleaning out leaves over the weekend. He was not enthused at all by my presence, and as soon as my wife and son ceased fussing over him, he disappeared, I suppose back into the pond. A few smaller frogs pulled out of the pond seemed more cheerful than this grumpy old fellow, but all readily hopped back into the chilly water.

Dr. Merrill has fewer and wider petals than Royal Star, but they flower about the same time in late winter/ early spring.

Dr. Merrill has fewer and wider petals than Royal Star, but they flower about the same time in late winter/ early spring.

Many years in late winter the gardener is concerned that flowers of ‘Dr. Merrill’ (Magnolia × loebneri ‘Merrill’, above) and ‘Royal Star’ magnolias (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’, below) might be injured by freezes and frosts that are common in late February and early March. This year the buds did not begin to crack open until the last week of March, and the first fully opened flowers were delayed until yesterday. Only a third of the buds have opened, but with warm temperatures on the weekend I expect both magnolias will reach full bloom.

Royal Star is more bush-like than the tall Dr. Merrill, though it is wider, closer to the ground so that it would occupy a large space in a small garden.

Royal Star is more bush-like than the tall Dr. Merrill, though it is wider, closer to the ground so that it would occupy a large space in a small garden.

I have not seen other ‘Dr. Merrill’ magnolias nearby for comparison since it is not planted much any longer while late flowering hybrids such as ‘Jane’ are more favored, but typically it flowers several days earlier than ‘Royal Star’. This is most often the first week of March, though it can vary a week or so in either direction. It is unusual, and I’m certain I don’t recall a year when the flowers were delayed until April. Surely, the blooms will not be threatened by cold this late.

Jane magnolia breaking bud in early April

Jane magnolia breaking bud in early April

A few flowers on ‘Jane’ are beginning to show some color as the buds open, and buds of the pale yellow ‘Elizabeth’ are noticeably swelling, so flowers on all might overlap at some point next week. The redbuds are due to flower any day, and dogwood buds are plump and ready to burst open with several days of warmth. While the tardy blooms of ‘Dr. Merrill’ and ‘Royal Star’ were missed a month earlier, that was then and today there are no complaints.

Plant identification

An exceptional hellebore, but unfortunately its name has been forgotten

An exceptional hellebore, but unfortunately its name has been forgotten

A hazard of my collecting numerous cultivars of a plant is that each must be marked for later identification or the names quickly become jumbled and forgotten. My memory is not so great to start with, and with too many similar items to recall, the effort seems hopeless. Which is fine for my purposes, but when I’m documenting the garden through the year there are times I’d prefer to know the specifics of what I’m describing. To recommend planting hellebores in general is acceptable, I suppose, but are Pine Knot hybrids superior to ‘Ivory Prince’, or whatever?

Possibly a Pine Knot hybrid. but maybe just a seedling

Possibly a Pine Knot hybrid. but maybe just a seedling

In fact, I am quite familiar with both, and these are superb selections, though there are no hellebores more vigorous than the Pine Knots. Except, the Pine Knots in the garden have been around long enough that dozens of seedlings have grown alongside, which is another issue since now I can’t distinguish seedlings from the hybrids (which, of course will also be hybrids, but not Pine Knot hybrids). ‘Ivory Prince’ hardly takes a backseat in its exuberance, and with an abundance of blooms a reasonable argument can be made in its favor. In fact, many more of the hellebores in this garden are splendid, except I haven’t a clue anymore what they are. I could, and I suppose I should, do better.Ivory Prince hellebore in early April

In the garden’s early days I placed a small marker beneath unique varieties to help me remember, but these became too obtrusive, I judged. And, it seemed a bit presumptuous to label plants, I thought implying that the garden was more grand than it is. In earlier days I had no idea that I would ever share the garden with anyone who cared to recognize one hellebore or iris from another, but here we are. So, again I’ve purchased a first batch of copper tags, and I’ll give it a go.

An unidentified, but marvelous hellebore in early April

An unidentified, but marvelous hellebore in early April

Of course, this helps little with cultivars planted in the garden’s first twenty-five years, but we’ll manage to muddle through.

Another splendid hellebore with a name I can't recall

Another splendid hellebore with a name I can’t recall

Scenes from the early April garden

An unidentified hellebore flowering in early April

An unidentified hellebore flowering in early April

With snow and cold temperatures that lingered far too long into March there are fewer blooms in early April, but that will be remedied shortly, I am certain. With spring temperatures delayed, I can be satisfied for a while with snowdrops, witch hazels, and hellebores that display more abundant blooms by the day (above). But, without the distraction of magnolias, redbuds (Cercis canadensis) and winter hazels (Corylopsis pauciflora, below) there are other interests in the garden.Winter hazel flowers in mid March

While spring allergies urge that I don’t stir up more pollen than is necessary, I cannot resist shaking branches of the Japanese cedars (Cyrptomeria japonica, below) as I walk past. I try my darnedest to stand upwind as brown clouds erupt from the abundant, small cones, but inevitably there are sneezes to come over the next hour. What a sad life this gardener leads to be so easily entertained.

A brown cloud erupts from cones of Japanese cedar in late March

A brown cloud of pollen erupts from cones of Japanese cedar in late March

In early spring the catkins of pussywillow (Salix gracilistyla ‘Variegata’, below) are blooming, with flowers that will soon be tipped in bright yellow pollen. When brought indoors through the winter, this is the time that stems are discarded, before they make too much of a mess, but in the garden this is not an issue.

Pussywillow flowering in late March

Pussywillow flowering in late March

I believe that if records for such things were kept, this pussywillow must be the widest spreading, and certainly the most unruly of its kind. Though it is a near impossibility to pace through the muck from one side of the shrub to the other, I’m certain that it must be thirty feet across. I’m told, and certainly it must be true, that most gardeners cut their pussywillows back annually for a more tidy appearance, and so that more new shoots are encouraged. Thus there are more catkins, and no doubt a more attractive shrub, but there are other details to be tended to in this garden, so it’s unlikely I’ll manage to get around to this.

Variegated pussywillow in leaf is more attractive than I give it credit.

Variegated pussywillow in leaf is more attractive than I give it credit.

While it is easy to disparage an indestructible shrub such as the pussywillow, the shrub is perfectly suited to the swampy conditions at the rear of the garden (which could possibly be slightly to the far side of the property line, though this should be whispered so that the neighborhood association is not alerted). Though I don’t proclaim this loudly, I visit the pussywillow too frequently through the late winter to be taken seriously when I hesitate to recommend it.