The scent of the late winter garden

I have a terrible sniffer. I can barely discern all but the strongest scents, but this afternoon the garden was filled with sweet fragrances. The blooms of the vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, below) are beginning to fade after six weeks, but its scent was evident from halfway across the rear garden.

Perhaps it would have attracted my attention from further, but the large ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia, below) is fully in flower and its scent was even stronger. It began to flower early in February and I expect that the flowers will persist for several weeks longer. In recent winters I’ve savored these as lone blooms in a snow covered garden, but of course in this abnormally warm winter there have been many flowers.

The winter daphnes have teased with dark pink buds since late in December, but only now are the flowers opening. There is a slight scent today, but as the blooms open fully after a few more warm days this will increase so that I’ll detour each evening when I return home to investigate.

I’ve read that the paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha, below) is fragrant, but I’ve not been able to detect it on the four wide spreading shrubs in the garden. I adore the blooms, which are just beginning to show their first color. In another week, when they’re in full bloom I’ll take care to visit them on a still, sunny evening when the scent is likely to be the strongest.

Soon, there will be hyacinths, then sweet viburnums and all manner of fragrant blooms, but when the trees and shrubs are bare there is no better time to enjoy the scents of late winter.

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No daffodils in bloom

I believe that my garden is the only one within a hundred miles without a daffodil in bloom. My neighbors’ are flowering. Down the road, and across town I’m seeing a few here, and many more over there. My property is rather cold by nature, straddling a small creek that runs along the bottom land between hills that eventually turn to the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Snow persists for days longer than on nearby properties, and the overnight frost that settles onto this low lying ground often coats the small, shaded front garden long into the afternoon.

I’ve planted hundreds, and maybe thousands of daffodils (above, in some earlier year) through the years, and with this oddly warm winter they’ve shown growth since early in January. There are a few that appear ready to flower in the next two weeks, but none shows even a hint of color today. The petite growing and early blooming ‘February Gold’ is a misnomer in my garden. I suspect that it flowers somewhere in February, but I don’t believe that it ever has in my garden, and with only a few days remaining there’s little chance it will this year.

I’m not complaining, though it probably sounds as if I am. There’s plenty else flowering in late February, just as there’s been something flowering every day in the garden since mid February a year ago. Yes, flowers every day through the winter. Outside, in northwestern Virginia. What a strange and wonderful winter.

I’m afraid that there will be too many blooms to cover today before my energy to write and your patience to continue reading runs short, but I suppose I should begin with the bulbs, since I’ve already wasted your valuable time with several paragraphs bemoaning my lack of daffodil blooms. I read early in January that snowdrops (Galanthus, several unknown varieties, above) were flowering a bit closer to town, but of course in my garden they bloomed ten days later. In the past year they have begun to fill in nicely, and I expect that in another two years there will be quite a nice patch. I’ve planted them in the shadiest, coldest ground in the garden, but other than flowering a bit late they perform splendidly.

Sometime in recent memory, a year, or maybe two (or three years) ago, I planted a few handfuls of Winter aconites (Eranthus hyemalis, above). I seldom (never) purchase a sufficient quantity of bulbs to make much of a show until they multiply or go to seed, and this afternoon there is only one of these cheerful yellow blooms to be seen. In a more typical, dark and dreary winter this single flower would be treasured, but it’s easy to take it for granted with so many other flowers around.

And there are a few tiny crocus (above) that seem to spread themselves about vigorously in other gardens, but I planted probably five, and the squirrels or rabbits seem to keep them from doing much of anything. Still, they’re nice as I stroll through the garden this warm afternoon in short sleeves and short pants, and I know I should have planted many dozens more.

I’ve been jabbering on about the hellebores (above) since early in January, and now the few stragglers that had been reluctant to bloom finally have. Even though I didn’t cut back the foliage as I do nearly every other winter, the flowers are so abundant on the fat clumps that they stand well above the few browned, but mostly green leaves.

I’ve not kept count, but several of the hellebores have passed their ten year anniversary in the garden, and they grow better each year. The seedlings substantially outnumber the ones that I’ve planted, and I’m constantly surprised when a thick plant sports two or three (even four) varying flowers. I should know better, but I’m pleased to get to the root of the matter to dig through the leaf debris to discover that there are indeed three separate plants that have sprouted together under this camellia.

Flowers in the winter are so marvelous. I’ve planted these bulbs and perennials, the witch hazels, mahonias, and camellias for the purpose of having some flowers late into December, and occasionally early in February when I’m itching to be out in the garden, but when frigid temperatures, snow, and ice insist not. Over the past few years the late autumn flowering ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia has become fairly regular blooming into the first week of January, but I’m enthused as every bud begins to break, and with every bloom through the winter.

I will be at a garden show through the weekend, but when I get a few minutes at the start of the week I’ll catch up on everything else that’s blooming in the garden, or getting ready to.

Pussy willow

Through February the local grocery store does brisk business selling bundles of pussy willow stems that have been forced into bloom. I have a rather large pussy willow growing at the rear of my garden, so it’s no surprise to me that few homeowners have a pussy willow of their own from which to cut stems.

I once met a fellow at a garden show who cut stems of pussy willow from wetlands on his farm in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He sold bundles of four or five stems for ten dollars each, as I recall. I frequently saw people walking around the show with several bundles, and I calculated that this fellow earned roughly my year’s salary in the show’s three days. He was big and burly (much like me, maybe a bit scruffier, but with a better beard), exactly what I would imagine a Pennsylvania pussy willow farmer to be, but today he’s likely to be living in luxury (but looking out of the windows of his castle at a field of out of control pussy willows).  

The pussy willow in my garden is an ill mannered tangle of sprawling branches, but by good fortune I planted it at the rear property line (maybe even over the line) in swampy ground that few other plants would tolerate. Here I can ignore its shortcomings, and enjoy the catkins that arrive in late winter (its one redeeming feature).

I can barely remember, but I think this pussy willow was supposed to have variegated foliage, which seemed at the time to be a reason enough to make the purchase. Now, I see no evidence of variegation in the leaves, and I don’t think it was ever very noticeable. For many plants variegated leaves are unstable, with new growth reverting to the normal green, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the aggressively growing pussy willow changed back to its non-variegated form.

Years ago I planted another pussy willow with pendulous branches (Salix caprea ‘Pendula’). This tree is a sure fire attraction at garden shows, but in practice I’ve found it disappointing. The above ground parts of the tree grow quite vigorously, and in early spring it is marvelous in bloom. But, the roots don’t keep pace, and my tree (and others I’ve seen) eventually toppled over in a summer storm. I staked the fallen tree upright, but as soon as the stakes were removed it fell again, and again, and finally I chopped it out.

I will marginally agree that there are no bad plants, only plants that are planted in the wrong place, But, pussy willow is seldom satisfactory, unless you happen to own a bit of swampland (or you’re marketing cut stems to a grocer or garden show). If you like to have a few forced branches on the kitchen counter as a reminder that spring is approaching I suggest purchasing the stems, and plant a shrub in your garden that is bit more mannerly and attractive through the year.

Which witch hazel is which

I find myself dumbfounded on occasion, maybe even frequently. Last year I purchased a large witch hazel (seven feet tall and nearly as wide) that was labelled by the grower as Hamamelis virginiana, the native witch hazel of the mid Atlantic. My confusion began when the leaves dropped in early November.

The leaves are not supposed to drop, at least not that early. The foliage of Virginia witch hazel turns to yellow in October, sometimes a striking, glowing yellow, and other times a drab, tired yellow, but it persists (and this is a big drawback) to obscure the small ribbon-like blooms in late autumn. This wasn’t happening. First, the leaves fell off, then I waited through another month and there were no blooms. There were plenty of buds that were quite obvious without leaves in the way, but they showed no sign that they’d flower any time soon.

Now, I consider myself to be a patient and laid back person (though no one else seems to agree), but I was concerned and a bit agitated. Had I screwed something up? Was my witch hazel damaged, or dying? Why wasn’t it doing what it’s supposed to do? I suppose that the gardener’s first inclination is to suspect that they’ve done something wrong, but what?

The buds were very witch hazel like, and the leaves (before they dropped) were definitely witch hazel leaves, but what kind? I went to the references, and sure enough, the growth habit of the Virginia witch hazel didn’t match the egg shaped form of my large shrub. I read further. Aha! It seems that the rounded shape is clearly the habit of the Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, above) which is native to states just to the west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In fact, this shrub was purchased from a tree grower in central Tennessee, the witch hazel’s native habitat.

The foliage of Vernal witch hazel does not persist, and it flowers in mid to late winter so that the blooms are in full, open view. The flowers are ribbon-like and fragrant, similar to other witch hazels, but only a half inch long, much shorter than the hybrids that flower several weeks later. Plants grown from seed often exhibit variability in one form or another, and the flowers of the Vernal witch hazel are usually yellow, but can be rust colored.

I’m a bit color blind, but I know that the flowers of this witch hazel aren’t yellow, and I’m not quite certain they’re rust either. Whatever color the flowers are, I need to get about a foot away before I can see them, but they’re plenty fragrant. I guess  this has worked itself out. I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed the shrub isn’t the native Virginia witch hazel, but it is what it is (which is exactly what a laid back person would say).

Anyway, this is a bit of a long winded way of getting around to saying that the Vernal witch hazel is in full bloom at the middle of February, and it’s been that way for several weeks with the first flowers appearing early in January. Of course, the unusually warm temperatures this winter have plants as confused as I am, so this might be the last time it begins to flower in January.

The hybrid witch hazels popped into bloom early in February, and this is a week or two early for them. Regardless of frigid temperatures or three feet of snow on the ground the bright yellow flowered ‘Arnold Promise’  (Hamamelis x media ‘Arnold Promise’, above) begins to flower almost precisely in the middle of February, but this year it’s early.

The flowers of ‘Arnold Promise’ are larger and more significant than the vernal witch hazel (or the Virginia witch hazel), and since the hybrids are propagated by cuttings or grafting the genetic variation of seedlings is eliminated and the blooms are dependably bright yellow. The scent seems to be magnified as well, and even with my diminished sense of smell I often notice it from halfway across the garden.

The red to rusty red colored flowers of ‘Diane’ seem never to be as abundant as on ‘Arnold Promise’, and with my partial color blindness the blooms hardly stand out. ‘Diane’ (above) flowers slightly later, but in a typical February when there are no other blooms, it is particularly welcome. I’ll often venture out in early February to see if the buds have begun to open (below), and I’m cheered if only a slight bit of red or yellow is showing. This year there are so many other flowers in the winter garden that I’ve been spoiled into taking the witch hazels more for granted, but they are wonderful plants, certainly worthy of inclusion in any garden.

Native weeds … No, I mean perennials

“Weeds from the side of the road, that’s what they are”.

Well, that’s partially true, but take those weeds into a cultivated garden, and many turn into valuable, sturdy, and beautiful perennials (Ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis, above). But not all. There are thistles and brambles that we discourage from growing in our gardens, but most of our gardens’ plants grow along roadsides, in open meadows, or in the understory of the forest, at least in one part of the planet or another.

Some native “weeds” that regularly are overlooked in their natural habitat are, in fact, marvelous perennials (Goldenrod, Solidago rugosa, above). They’re growing in ditches and meadows, but left to fend for themselves in poor soils with irregular irrigation, and with competition from rambunctious neighbors (and real weeds) they aren’t able to show their true character. That is, until they’re grown in a nursery pot, fertilized and cut back to encourage fullness, then transplanted into a fertile garden. With a bit of water and care suddenly they’re wonderful perennials, and I’ve got a bunch of them in my garden.

Many native perennials are especially well suited to our hot and humid summers, droughts and deluges, and variably cold winters (Beebalm, Monarda didyma, above). They will tolerate poorly drained clay soils, and some are the sole food or shelter source for specific bugs and butterflies (such as Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa for the Monarch butterfly). But native perennials are not a cure for all that ails the garden. Despite what you might read, many natives still are eaten by deer and their leaves are munched on by a variety of insects. They’re not resistant. They suffer from fungi and diseases like any other plant, and they must be planted in suitable conditions. A sun loving native cannot be plunged into deep shade and be expected to thrive, or even survive. A wetlands plant can’t be planted in sun baked, dry clay. Just about all the rules for sensible planting apply to natives as well as non-native plants.

I’ve planted a lot of native perennials without even knowing (or caring) that they were native (Blue False Indigo, Baptisia autralis, above). Lots of gardeners have, because they’re just common, everyday good plants that gardeners are successful with, and they look good. Some are mild mannered, and others vigorous with wildness that isn’t easily tamed.

There’s significant room for discussion on what a native plant really is, and I don’t care to take one side or the other. Hybrid crosses are generally denied native status, but some enthusiasts leave a bit of wiggle room for cultivars that are selected for improved characteristics such as longer blooms or more compact growth. The native Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium or Eutrochium, above) is a fine plant, but it towers over most gardens. Perennial growers select seedlings that display more desirable shorter and compact growth, and if they perform well in a garden setting they are propagated in quantity and given a cultivar name. Though naturally occurring, these are often not considered native, though many gardeners are happy to accept them as part of their native gardens.

I don’t care one way or the other (Perennial sunflower, Helianthus, above). I’ve planted bunches of non-native plants in my garden, so I’m not a purist when it comes to natives, and the birds, bees, and butterflies don’t seem to mind whether a perennial is accepted as a native, or not (Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, below).  

Hellebore blooms and seedlings

In this unusually warm winter the hellebores in the garden began to flower early in January. By late in the month, and now early in February most are in full bloom. In most years hellebores flower late in February in my garden with the blooms lasting for a month or longer, fading as temperatures turn warmer. Today, after a month a few flowers are past their peak, but in even the warmest February temperatures I expect the blooms will persist for a few weeks longer than is usual.

I can barely recall which of the hellebores I planted and the ones that are seedlings that have popped up. Most of the seedlings stay close where the seeds have dropped near the parent plants, but some seeds are swept away by rain or wind to germinate under the brush pile or in the deep leaf litter that accumulates in the brambles just before the small creek that borders the garden. Many of these have been transplanted to the cultivated part of the garden so they can be enjoyed as a part of the garden rather than remaining partially hidden in the surrounding woodland.

It hardly matters which of the hellebores are named cultivars or chance seedlings since there are minimal differences in their growth habit, foliage, or flowers. There are subtle differences in the coloration or veining patterns of the blooms of similar plants, but the differences are slight enough to be barely noticeable.

Each year I add a few new hellebores, and the newest introductions are much improved with new colors, but mostly with flowers that stand upright. Most older hellebores’ flowers nod downward so they must be lifted to be seen.

The foliage of hellebores often becomes ragged by late winter, so I prune it off carefully to avoid damaging the flowers and emerging leaves. With flowers in early January this year (and mild temperatures) the foliage is unblemished except for a few leaves that have browned in the cold of the past two weeks. I will not cut the older leaves this year except any that turn brown by early spring, and I expect that the new leaves will grow through and cover any that are slightly worn. With a full head of foliage the flowers stand out slightly less than if I had cut the leaves to the ground, but the blooms stand just above the leaves so they’re not hidden.

I’ve been delighted to have flowers through this winter. The blooms of winter jasmine, witch hazels, and hellebores are not damaged by periods of cold temperatures, and rather than venturing out in the garden to anxiously catch the first signs of buds opening, I’ve enjoyed this odd season of winter blooms.

So disappointing

I can’t recall the last time that ‘Winter’s Interlude’ camellia flowered in my garden. It’s supposed to flower in November, or as late as December, but doesn’t, at least not regularly. I have an old photo of it flowering, but it was at least four or five years ago. Why doesn’t it bloom? I’ve no clue, the other late autumn flowering Ackerman hybrid camellias bloom dependably, but not this one.

Every year ‘Winter’s Interlude’ develops fat buds, then nothing happens. Sometimes the buds swell and I figure they’ll pop open any day, but they don’t, until this year. With this oddly warm weather the buds have been showing promise for weeks, and by mid January there was a bit of pink peaking out. A few days ago one burst into bloom, then another a day later.

But (and when you’ve waited far too long for something marvelous to happen there’s often a but), the flowers have been damaged by frost and freeze so the edges are brown. This is perfectly logical, and I suppose it should be expected that the tender blooms would be damaged by repeated temperatures below freezing. Still, it’s disappointing.

Other flowers blooming through January have not been injured, but witch hazels, mahonias, hellebores, and snowdrops typically flower in some part of the winter so that the blooms are genetically more tolerant of cold temperatures. Camellias flower through the winter months in some warmer parts of the country, but these areas rarely experience temperature fluctuations from the sixties into the lower teens, and it’s obvious to me that the flowers are too tender for this cold.

So, I’m pleased that ‘Winter’s Interlude’ has finally bloomed, but disappointed that the flowers are damaged and ugly. What to do? Give up and dig the camellia out? The more logical response would be to provide it with a sunnier location in the garden so that there would be a greater chance that it would flower when it’s supposed to. By late autumn the more southerly path of the sun gives ‘Winter’s Interlude’ only a brief glimpse of direct sunlight, so moving it could help.

But will I do it? Probably not. Where would it go, and would that be too much sun, or too little? The easier decision is to do nothing at all, but to wonder why and complain when the plump buds go to waste.