After the blooms, yellow and variegated foliage

The neighborhood deer were unusually active in the garden in early autumn. Leathery leaves of oakleaf hydrangeas and foliage of perennials that persisted late into the season were munched on, and deer resistant evergreens that require a protective spray only in early December were damaged. I haven’t a clue why.

In recent years I’ve become more fond of the gold spotted evergreen leaves of ‘Gold Dust’ aucuba (Aucuba japonica ‘Gold Dust’, above), and though it is listed by references as “usually not damaged” by deer, I’ve found it quite susceptible to injury in the winter months. But, not in October and November.

I routinely spray a deer repellent at the start of every month from May through October, and then a double dose is sprayed in December to protect vulnerable evergreens. If I’m feeling particularly energetic I’ll spray the aucubas before December, but most months I pass them by, or give a quick misting over the top. In any case, the foliage of two aucubas was eaten nearly to the stems with only a few leaves remaining that were undamaged. Several larger plants were untouched, so I must suppose that they were sprayed. I’m pretty certain that the aucubas will fully flush new leaves in the spring, but it won’t surprise me if they’re a bit thin next year.

My color vision is woefully lacking so that red and purple leafed plants are appreciated only from close up, but yellow and gold leafed plants such as aucuba and yucca stand out in the drab winter garden. ‘Color Guard’ and ‘Golden Sword’ yuccas (Yucca filamentosa, above) are sturdy evergreens with dependably deer resistant yellow striped foliage and tall spikes of creamy white flowers in early summer. The variegation of several other yuccas does not stand out so much, but all are low care and drought tolerant.

I have planted a number of yellow needled evergreens in the garden. Golden arborvitaes and a few cypresses fade with shorter periods of sunlight, but the golden fernspray cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Fernspray Gold’, above) turns the color a few notches brighter for the winter. Golden fernspray is slow growing, and especially effective against the dark green background of taller hollies. In a hot, dry location I’ve seen the gold foliage burn a bit, but this is easily remedied by providing a more organic, moisture retentive soil or with some protection from the late afternoon summer sun.

Two other variegated leaf evergreens are marvelous additions to the winter garden, though perhaps not as showy as red and gold leafed plants. Elegantissima boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’, above) has small rounded leaves with green centers and creamy white edges. It is useful for hedging or as an individual accent, and it will tolerate full sun to partial shade. One that I’ve planted is slowly weakening in ever deepening shade, and it is too large to easily transplant, so next year I must thin the branches of neighboring ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maples, or risk losing it. Another variegated boxwood growing in nearly full sun grows much more vigorously.

The variegated English hollies (Ilex aquifolium ‘Argenteo Marginata’, above) grow slowly in my garden, and without a pollinator they offer no berries through the winter. One is planted in full sun, and another in partial shade, but both would benefit from additional irrigation through the summer months. There is probably some benefit in keeping the hollies smaller for longer (in a spot where they were not allocated nearly enough space), but they would be ever so much more cheerful with bunches of red berries.

After the blooms

The late autumn blooming camellias appear to be finished for the season, except for ‘Winter’s Interlude’ that has dozens of fat buds, but hasn’t flowered in any of the past several years. I am probably imagining that the buds are showing a hint of color, as if ready to open on the next warm afternoon, but after repeated failures I’m not expecting a different result this year.

‘Winter Sun’ mahonia is slightly past peak bloom now, and I expect that it will fade by the first week of January. A handful are planted in part shade and sunny spots, and the ones in the sun flower earlier, and fade more quickly.

With moderate temperatures in January the vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) will flower several weeks earlier than the hybrids ‘Arnold’s Promise’ and ‘Diane’. And, today there are a few scattered yellow blooms on the winter jasmines (Jasminum nudiflorum), and a bit of pink is already peaking out from the buds of the evergreen variegated winter daphnes (Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’, above).  Otherwise, there are slim prospects for blooms over the next six weeks (though these will be greatly anticipated). Instead, this is the time to savor foliage of evergreens less appreciated through the warmer months.

Nandina domestica is treasured through the winter for its large clusters of red berries, and the foliage of some plants (and not others) will turn to red in late autumn. But, by mid January many of the nandinas begin to shed their leaves, and in the typical cold of northwestern Virginia they are often nearly bare in late winter. Other nandinas dependably hold their foliage through the winter, and two recent introductions are brilliantly colored. ‘Blush Pink’ (Nandina domestica ‘Blush Pink’, above) does not have berries in winter, but its foliage is a splendid medley of dark and light pinks against a backdrop of green.

‘Blush Pink’ is a considerable improvement over the common ‘Firepower’ nandina. ‘Firepower’ lacks vigor and performs unremarkably in my garden with only the promise of red autumn foliage that is often disappointing. ‘Blush Pink’ is a considerable improvement with superior growth and colored foliage through the year. 

‘Flirt’ nandina (Nandina domestica ‘Flirt’, above) is a low spreader similar to ‘Harbor Dwarf’, except that the foliage retains a deep red color throughout the year. I’ve never been overly impressed with the growth of ‘Harbor Dwarf’ (or the improved ‘Harbor Belle’), but in the few years since I planted a few test plants ‘Flirt’ has grown with acceptable vigor.

Due to marginal cold hardiness loropetalums are found in mid Atlantic garden centers infrequently, but I am just about to the point of declaring that the hardiest of the bunch are acceptable for spring planting. One green leafed and several purple leafed cultivars (Loropetalum chinensis ‘Purple Diamond’, above) have survived three and four winters in my garden without damage, though the purple leafed types refuse to flower (and none flower in the spring). I hold out hope that the flower buds will survive as the plants become more established, but the arching branches and purple foliage are quite nice.

Before I am tempted to ramble on too long I’ll close for the day with the variegated leaf drooping leucothoe (Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’, above). I’ve never been wildly enthusiastic about the growth or foliage (or even the blooms) of ‘Rainbow’, but the leaf buds are wonderful.

In a few days I’ll return with plants with yellow foliage, and with a few of the variegated leaves that stand out in the winter garden. I will admit to strolling the garden with less frequency in the winter months, but still there many marvelous plants to enjoy.

What’s that tree?

“Do you know what my tree is? It’s tall, with leaves shaped like fingers, except the ends are all pointy-like”.

I’ve heard this a hundred times with some slight variations, and most often the description leaves me without a clue. I don’t fault the questioner, I can barely describe how to get to my own house, so I ask the person to send me a photo. Sometimes the picture tells the story, and other times I still draw a blank.

This, of course, is why we depend on references, and for plant identification there are some good ones. Through the years I have depended on the line drawings of the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants by Michael Dirr, an invaluable reference with more information about woody trees and shrubs than most gardeners will ever require. Any gardener with an interest in trees and shrubs will find this book valuable, but it’s format is best suited as a reference and not to casual reading.

Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs has photographs rather than line drawings, and the book is better suited to the gardener looking to gain information to make choices for plants to add to the garden. There are no close up photos of leaves, so as a reference in plant identification this new edition is perhaps not as useful, but it contains an incredible amount of information, and it’s a great value.

Many times my first step in researching an identification question is to do a Google search, and if the topic doesn’t attract too many commercial sites I’ve found some excellent references. I’ve recently stumbled on an internet and smart phone tool to help with tree and shrub identification, along with a database of trees and shrubs of the northeast.

Leafsnap.com contains a database with excellent closeup photos of leaves, flowers, seeds, and bark, and basic plant characteristics. But, it’s primary usefulness is likely to be for owners of iPhones. A free app is available that will identify a single leaf that is photographed against a white background. For now, it’s only available for iPhone and iPad, but they’re working on an Android version, I hear.

I don’t have an iPhone, or even a smart phone, so I haven’t tested the app, but it seems to offer promising assistance in helping to identify common trees and shrubs.

The December garden’s brightest lights

Occasionally, I consider that one plant or another might be my particular favorite, and then another pops into bloom and …. well, you can see where this is going. I’m fairly certain that it’s unrealistic for most gardeners to pick one favorite plant, and depending on the time of the year I have a handful, or perhaps dozens of favorites.

I’ve known gardeners who are wildly enthusiastic about irises, or daylilies, and they are likely to feature them almost exclusively in their gardens. I’m as apt to fall madly in love with a marvelous Japanese iris this week, and a variegated leaf dogwood, Japanese maple (any of twenty-some cultvars), or a pendulous European beech the next. I get especially excited by the first late winter blooms of witch hazels and hellebores, and by the late summer flowers of toad lilies. I’m a hopeless case, and this is why I have one of too many plants, and more collections than I can recall.

In the middle of December there are berries galore on the hollies and nandinas, and these are highly treasured, but I’ve become particularly fond of the late autumn blooming ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above). In my northwestern Virginia garden ‘Winter Sun’ begins to flower early in November, and shaded plants will often continue blooming into January.

I was recently traveling through several of the Gulf coast states, and in warmer climes ‘Winter Sun’ was only starting to flower in early December, which indicates to me that the bloom is triggered by cold temperatures rather than dwindling hours of daylight. In southern gardens I expect that the mahonia is likely to flower through January, but in these gardens there are also camellias and whatever else blooming, so ‘Winter Sun’ is not appreciated so much as in my garden where these will be the only flowers from mid December into late January.

In addition to the hybrid ‘Winter Sun’ I’ve planted the Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium, sometimes called Oregon grape holly), leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei), and one or two of a handful more cultivars. ‘Soft Caress’ (Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’) with narrow, fern-like foliage, is also a late autumn bloomer, but it is marginally cold hardy and has failed to thrive or flower in my garden.

The common Oregon grape mahonia flowers in the spring, but I’ve found that it is not as vigorous in my garden as others, and the holly-like foliage tends to blemish with spots or areas of brown so that it is not as attractive as others. Its growth is spreading and irregular, and to my thinking Oregon grape is unremarkable compared to ‘Winter Sun’ and leatherleaf.

The spring flowers of leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) are similar in appearance to ‘Winter Sun’, but leatherleaf is an awkward, sprawling shrub, while ‘Winter Sun’ grows more upright and compact. The blooms of both mahonias are followed by small, grape-like fruits, though I’ve mentioned more than once that in my garden the fruits are more abundant on leatherleaf. Friends in the south who grow both tell me that ‘Winter Sun’ fruits heavily for them, so I presume that colder temperatures are to blame.

Occasionally, a seedling or two of leatherleaf mahonia pop up along the forest’s edge of my garden, spread by birds. They are not widespread or numerous, and I would not consider this mahonia to be at all invasive. Several seedlings have been encouraged to remain in dry shaded spots in the garden, where they continue to thrive without care. Often the seeds of hybrids are sterile, and indeed I have not seen seedlings of ‘Winter Sun’.

In a recent magazine article about winter berries the author stated that mahonia fruits are not favored by birds, but they disappear quickly in my garden, so it appears that Virginia birds find them to be acceptable, and perhaps this is a regional difference also. Over the past few years I’ve seen more fruits on the ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias in my garden, but they are smaller than leatherleaf’s, and since the clusters are smaller the fruits don’t make as much of a show as on the spring blooming mahonia.

The leaves of both leatherleaf and ‘Winter Sun’ are well armed with thorns, and heaven forbid that you should ever step on a dead leaf of either with a bare foot. I have, more than once, and the experience is painful. The barbs on ‘Winter Sun’ are more plentiful, and I’ve heard more than a few people recommend this as an ideal plant to grow under a teenage daughter’s window. I have only sons (who are grown and long gone from our home), so I can’t imagine why.

The panicles of yellow flowers on ‘Winter Sun’ are considerably longer, and the individual flowers are slightly larger, so that its floral display is superior to the spring bloomers. I’ve read that the blooms are fragrant, but I think that they’re not particularly so, and I have a poor sniffer so that I have not noticed any scent at all. On warm days in late autumn the few remaining bees are highly appreciative of the flowers, and ‘Winter Sun’ is fully in flower deep into December, so how could it not be a favorite?

An odd bloom

With several unseasonably warm January days it is not unusual for forsythias to burst into bloom, and occasionally a stray daffodil or two will flower weeks early. There is little danger in the premature flowering, and in most cases the blooms are scattered and don’t take away from the  usual display a month later.

In mid-December there is a bit of an oddity in my garden, but hardly one to write home about. Most azaleas set buds in August that will bloom in the spring, but Encore azaleas begin to set buds soon after flowering. In warm weather states the azaleas bloom off an on from early spring through late autumn, but in my northwestern Virginia garden the azaleas flower in late April into early May, and then set buds that will bloom in late summer and early autumn on an irregular schedule depending on the variety. Several Encore varieties are slower to set buds in late summer so that cold temperatures catch up to them, and there are few flowers and sometimes none at all.

As I have tested Encore azaleas in my garden I’ve abandoned some that have not flowered dependably a second time in late summer or early autumn, but a few flower just enough so that I haven’t given up on them. ‘Autumn Amethyst’ azalea (above) has never made much of a show in September and October, with only a few scattered blooms, but oddly it continues to flower through November and in mid December there are a handful of blooms, and more buds opening every day.

Now, if my garden was in the deep south this wouldn’t be so odd, but nearly every night over the past month has dipped into the twenties, with a day or two into the upper teens. Azaleas shouldn’t be in bloom in December, but clearly ‘Autumn Amethyst’ has an unusual cycle and a tolerance for cold, and I’m not complaining.

The ‘Winter’s Star’ camellias have recently wrapped up their blooms for the season, but another of the cold hardy late autumn flowering camellias (‘Winter’s Charm’, above) has a few flowers, and the buds of the always-tardy-in-my-garden ‘Winter’s Interlude’ are plump and ready to pop if the weather cooperates. Unfortunately, the timing for this camellias has not worked out for several years, and fat buds never seem to open. There’s always hope.

More berries

In my enthusiasm showing off the red berried hollies last week I failed to mention the shiniest, reddest, and most abundant berries in the garden. One of my favorite plants is the common, but beautiful, nandina (Nandina domestica), sometimes called heavenly bamboo for its bamboo-like stems and foliage. I have planted several handfuls of nandina cultivars, but most have only scattered few berries (if any at all).

Each stem of the tall growing Nandina domestica has a large bunch of berries that turns to red in early autumn, and then slowly fades through the winter months. Though they are noted as a food source for birds I find that they are eaten only reluctantly, so that most berries remain at winter’s end.

The clusters often become so heavy that the stems arch under their weight, and after a wet snow it’s not unusual for a six foot stem to bend to touch the ground. When the snow is shaken free the stems usually bounce back to their original shape, but with a heavy snow I’ve sometimes been forced to cut off the berries, and then they spring back.

I’ve planted a dozen or more of the tall growing nandinas in part shade and full sun, and unsurprisingly the heaviest berry set is on plants growing in the sun. Each berry cluster has several dozen berries (or more), and on a large nandina there will be eight or ten clusters, so that today there are thousands of bright red berries in the garden. And not only on hollies.

‘Tis the season

The hollies are appropriately adorned for the season with shiny red ornaments. There are at least ten, and probably closer to twenty varieties of upright growing hollies in the garden, and in early December many are loaded with red berries, more than I can recall in twenty-two years in this garden.

I’m certain that there is a simple explanation, but I haven’t a clue what it could be. Perhaps the extreme heat in July? Or the weather was just right for bees to be particularly active when the hollies were flowering? The abundant late summer and autumn rainfall? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. There are bunches of plump red berries, and this is a good thing.

I’ve noted in the past, but again today that the native American hollies (Ilex opaca) that grow in the forest bordering the garden have no berries at all. Again, I have no explanation. Perhaps the seedlings are too young to flower, though at least one that I’ve cultivated has grown to nearly eight feet tall. Still, no berries.

The berries of the cultivars and hybrid hollies in the garden differ in size and gloss, and even by color with various shades of red (and a few that are still mostly green). Some hollies have small bunches of berries, and on others the berries are jammed along the branches so that another berry couldn’t be wedged in (Ilex x ‘Christmas Jewel’, above).

Through the winter birds will slowly pluck the berries, favoring some over others, but near winter’s end some remain that fall to the ground. It’s rare that I see seedlings, and the occasional sprout is likely to be a hybrid that doesn’t match any of the nearby parent plants.

My color vision is sadly lacking, so I cannot see the bright red berries against the hollies’ dark green foliage from a distance, but I am satisfied to stroll through the garden at any time through the late autumn and winter to enjoy these colorful ornaments.