Blooming in December

I’ve just returned from visiting nurseries in the southeast, and after a month of freezing nighttime temperatures in Virginia it’s difficult to imagine that it’s winter along the Gulf Coast. There are flowers everywhere. Not only late blooming camellias, but also roses and autumn flowering Encore azaleas. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise, and certainly it’s not unusual for this part of the south. People who live down there think it’s cold, but my definition of cold weather doesn’t include azaleas in full bloom. People who live in the frozen tundras to the north of here will say that a real winter doesn’t have any flowers at all, but they’re just jealous.Autumn Amethyst Encore azalea in October

A year ago my northwestern Virginia garden had multiple plants flowering in December after abnormally warm temperatures in late autumn. Weather has been more typical this year, so there are only a few flowers in the garden. But, no azaleas, not even ‘Autumn Amethyst’ (above), that is prone to flowering late in the autumn and in early spring. Low overnight temperatures in the mid twenties in November assured that hydrangeas and azaleas wouldn’t flower again until spring, and even roses that will tolerate a deep freeze or two have failed to flower again. In warmer areas closer to town I suspect that there might still be some scattered blooms, but here, a few hard freezes closed the flowering season in a hurry.Winter's Star camellia in late November

But, there are some flowers in every month in this garden, and as late December approaches there are scattered blooms. The hybrid camellias began flowering a month ago, and ‘Winter’s Star’ (above) continues to bloom with every period of a few warm days. When cold returns the flowers fade quickly and the flower buds remain tight until the next warm spell.Winter's Snowman camellia in December

‘Winter’s Snowman’ camellia (above) is more shaded than ‘Winter’s Star’, so it did not flower at all through November. One gorgeous flower opened a few weeks ago, but other buds show little sign of color. I suspect that it will take a longer warm period for the buds to open, and if this goes on for too long the buds will often be damaged by extended cold and will not flower at all.Winter Sun mahonia in late November

There are a handful of ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above) in sun and shade in the garden, and it seems that no amount of cold or warm will deter it from flowering beginning in November through late December. In some years the bright yellow panicles will persist into January, and with only a few weeks remaining in December it shows little sign of fading.

The flowers in full sun appear earliest, followed by part sun, and one plant in nearly full shade is the last to bloom. But, the flowers fade more quickly with sun exposure, and the shaded plants will often remain in bloom a few weeks longer. After flowering small purple grape-like fruits slowly develop, but the fruits are rarely ripe before late winter. A year ago the spring flowering leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) flowered beginning in late January, and its fruit ripened at about the same time as ‘Winter Sun’. Birds often strip the fruits within a few days, and a few years ago when snow covered the ground for several weeks the fruits of ‘Winter Sun’ ripened perfectly so that birds had a plentiful supply.

As winter eases (hopefully) into January there should be more flowers to come on the various witch hazels and winter jasmine, then winter bulbs and whatever else I’ve forgotten, but planted for winter flowers. I don’t expect that there will be blooms every day of the winter like last year, but there will be buds that open partially to tease the gardener. There will be flowers for a period, then none, more blooms, and then, long before I’ve been driven stir crazy (I wish), spring will be here.

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