In this unusually warm winter leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, below) started to flower early in January. In early March it has reached its peak bloom (or perhaps slightly past), at the time when it usually is just beginning to show color. I expect the flowers will fade a bit sooner, but the winter blooms were quite welcome, and there will be many other flowers in the garden when the mahonia’s blooms fade a week early.
Many of the hellebores have been flowering continuously since early in January, though a few have just begun to bloom (below). In cool (or cold) temperatures hellebores’ flowers persist for a month or longer, and many flowers have remained for two months. The flowers fade only with sustained warmth (usually in late March in my shaded garden), so I expect that there be blooms for several more weeks. In talking with casual gardeners it seems that hellebores remain relatively unknown, and visitors to the garden are often surprised to see flowers in the winter months. New introductions with upward facing blooms promise to increase hellebores’ popularity.
While hellebores and mahonias were forced into bloom weeks early by warm temperatures, other plants were unaffected. The small flowers of sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. ‘Humilis’, below) are unremarkable and even difficult to see, tucked beneath glossy evergreen foliage, but they’re highly fragrant and often lead the gardener on a hunt to discover the origin of the scent. For the remainder of the year sweetbox is a utilitarian, slowly spreading ground cover that tolerates difficult dry shade, though it prefers slightly damper partial shade. Planting sweetbox requires a bit of patience since its growth is slow, but the wait is rewarded with an attractive evergreen that is sturdy, long lived, and care free.
Dark pink flower buds of winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureo-marginata’, below) appeared ready to open in late December, but the first blooms opened only in the last days of February. In early March one plant that receives a bit more sun than the other is a quarter into bloom, while the more shaded plant will not flower for another week. The flowers are a much lighter pink than the buds (almost white), and very fragrant.
Daphnes are reputed to be difficult to transplant and finicky, but I’ve experienced no problems with several winter and spring blooming cultivars. I recommend taking some care in placement so that the surrounding soil is not overly dry or wet, and partial shade is preferred. Be certain to give daphne adequate space so that it does not require future transplant, though it does not seem to mind flopping over neighbors in my overplanted garden.
I recently read that with warm temperatures Washington D.C.’s famed cherry blossoms are expected to flower a week earlier than the average of April 1, but ‘Okame’ cherry (Prunus x incamp ‘Okame’, above) has begun to flower in my garden at the start of March. ‘Okame’ is not commonly planted, and gardeners who know the tree often dismiss it as flowering too early when the blooms are susceptible to frost damage. Its light pink flowers are smaller than later blooming types, and I rarely see damage from cold. As if a further bonus is required to advocate greater use of ‘Okame’, its growth habit is slower and more compact than other cherries that often out grow their allotted space to make a nuisance of themselves.
I’ve read of invasive tendencies of Periwinkle (Vinca minor, above), but I’ve planted several small patches of green and variegated leaf varieties in my garden, and have not seen the slightest inclination of it spreading beyond its boundaries. I would be happier if it was a bit more aggressive, but once established it forms a dense, weeding inhibiting mat. I’ve planted perennials through it by grabbing a handful to be transplanted elsewhere, and watching for several weeks to be certain that the new plant is not overwhelmed. It’s roots are shallow, and periwinkle behaves nicely with neighboring plants. It has been blooming in my garden since late in February, a few weeks earlier than I’ve seen before.
I have planted a handful of varieties of pieris (Pieris japonica, above) in the garden, and though all are common I have hopelessly confused several so that I’m unlikely to ever figure which one is which. Several are just beginning to flower now, and once they reach peak bloom in a few weeks pieris is an early favorite of bees so that many homeowners are reluctant to plant them near their outdoor living spaces. I am happy to invite more bees, and more pieris varieties into the garden.