Most often, Leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei, above) flowers dependably late winter into early spring along with witch hazels and hellebores. The late winter bloomers provide a welcome measure of relief to impatient gardeners yearning for spring. In recent warm winters, leatherleaf mahonia occasionally bloomed into January, and despite consistently cold temperatures this winter the flower buds cracked open late in the month to reveal a flash of yellow. But, in this severe cold the flowers did not progress, and apparently this damaged the flowers so there will be none this spring (below).
This is no reason to be discouraged , and certainly one year out of thirty when the mahonia doesn’t flower can be forgiven. I have grown fonder of the early winter flowering ‘Winter Sun’ (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, below) with a more compact habit, but both are treasured for flowering when there are few blooms in the garden. With age, Leatherleaf mahonia becomes more sprawling, and with sharply spined foliage the gardener is warned to keep its distance from walks and patios.
Of course, I’ve planted several of both mahonias immediately beside stone paths, the better to enjoy the flowers, though passing by can occasionally be painful. My wife, as the self appointed keeper of the paths, pays particular attention to keep stray branches pruned to minimize this threat. My duties include dissuading her from injuring the superb natural form of various mahonias and nandinas, and pleading (begging) that she leave these matters to me. One offending branch that strayed far over the path was saved for several years as I repeatedly promised then delayed pruning, but most often I know when things have been pushed too far, so the branch was eventually removed.
At this time, when spring is imminent, its seems a shame to lament lost blooms, but it’s doubtful that the variegated winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata, above) will flower this spring. I am pleased that it has survived, or at least I’m confident that it will. This daphne is cold hardy to zero according to references, but at four or five (maybe six) below it has only lost its foliage, and I am convinced that lateral growth buds are alive, even as flower buds appear to have withered in the cold.
Other, more cold tolerant daphnes seem fine, though the foliage of ‘Carol Mackie’ (Daphne × burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’, above) has also been lost. This regularly occurs when temperatures fall much below ten degrees, and as far as I recall the daphne still flowers. A remarkable and identifying feature of daphnes is that the branches are very flexible, almost rubbery, so a shrub might be nearly flattened in a heavy snow and rebound a few weeks later as if nothing happened. This also proved useful several years ago when my son and I dropped a large branch of a maple that encroached too far into the garden onto poor ‘Carol Mackie’. Remarkably, branches bounced back as soon as the enormous branch was cut up and removed , and only a few small stems were lost. Now, a vigorous colony of sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis) grows through the naked center so that it appears that the daphne is two plants.
There is a slight amount of good news regarding the gardenias. There appears to be some life to a few of the zone 6 and 6b cold hardy ‘Pinwheel’ and ‘Heaven Scent’ gardenias. Zone 7 varieties show no signs of life, but on each of the cold tolerant types there are a branch or two near the base that are alive. Once the dead is cut away it’s questionable if they’ll be worth saving, and there’s little doubt that the breeder’s promise of cold hardiness in overstated. Perhaps I’ll remove what’s left of the gardenias and plant a few more daphnes.