Collecting mahonias (and other treasures)

A handful of hybrid mahonia cultivars (Mahonia x media) are barely distinguishable from one another, but I’ve determined to obtain one or more of each. Multiples are necessary to plant in varied conditions, so at least one if not all will thrive. That I often cannot recall which is which after several years is inconsequential, and fortunately, none have failed to survive, though ones in shade perform more poorly than those in more sun.

Several ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias have been in the garden for nearly a decade. In this time all have survived temperatures to six below zero, and multiple nights below zero with only minor cold injury. While seedlings of early spring flowering Leatherleaf mahonia are not unusual, the lack of bees through the cold months rarely allows pollination of the late autumn flowering hybrids.

Yes, I am an incorrigible collector. Not a hoarder, I think, but curious to include in the garden as many of the varied favorites as can be found. Not only mahonias, but a variety of trees, shrubs, and perennials. In defense, there are plants that are quite nice that I’ve planted only one of, so I am capable of restraint.

‘Marvel’ is a recent introduction, with leaves that are spineless except at the leaf’s tip. No information is available in references to show that ‘Marvel’ is a Mahonia x media hybrid, but it’s upright form, leaf structure, and late autumn flowering lead to this conclusion. The foliage of ‘Marvel’ is lighter green in color only due to nitrogen deficiency, for a plant that wore out the fertilizer in its container in the garden center. I expect growth in the spring will be similar in color to other mahonias.

It is likely that there are variations between mahonia cultivars in mature size, or perhaps one is more or less upright than others, but in early years following planting these differences are not readily apparent. The flowers are similar, if not the same, with most notable differences occurring with sunlight exposures that also effect timing of flowering. While ‘Winter Sun’ in part sun begins flowering in early November, another with less sunlight begins several weeks later.

Flowers of ‘Charity’ are shorter and held more upright, but I suspect this is due more to habitat rather than a difference in cultivars.

What purpose is there for planting hybrids ‘Winter Sun, ‘Underway’, ‘Charity’, and ‘Marvel’, along with several spring flowering Leatherleaf mahonias (Mahonia bealei), and early autumn blooming ‘Bejing Beauty’ that is similar to ‘Narihira’ and ‘Soft Caress’ mahonias that have proved not to be sufficiently cold hardy for this garden? Curiosity seems a suitable answer that masks possible mental deficiencies that my wife would offer as explanation.

In mid December, Flower buds have developed on leatherleaf mahonia. Flowers could appear as early as late January in a mild winter, but more typically in late February to early March. Leatherleaf mahonia has a more sprawling growth habit than the upright hybrids, and it tends to spread much wider.

Leatherleaf mahonia will occasionally begin to flower in late February, but typically flowering starts in late February followed by small, purple grape-like fruits that birds pluck soon after ripening. This results in several seedlings each year, some of which have been allowed to grow on while others are weeded out.


A wet snow

There is no reason for concern with this morning’s snowfall, at least not in this garden, though there are reports that areas nearby have greater accumulation. Though the snow is wet and branches are arching, there will not be enough in this garden to cause any damage.   If there is a potential complication for areas with more snow, it is that in this unusual late autumn many brown leaves have not fallen, and more of the wet snow clings to branches.

The snowy view from the kitchen window.

In any case, it’s December, and snow is not unusual. There is no question that it transforms the garden, and as a temporary ornament it’s lovely, particularly when the gardener is satisfied that no injury will result.

Nandina berries shine through the snow. Some tall branches of nandinas arch under the weight of this wet snow, but there should not be enough accumulation to cause a problem.

The unusual sight is the few flowers poking through the snow, not camellias and mahonias with blooms that are not unusual in December, but the few scattered flowers of reblooming azaleas and Rankin jasmine.

Most of the sczattered flowers of Autumn Amethyst azalea are hidden beneath the snow, but several buds rise above.

Flowers of camellias will be ruined with nighttime temperatures in the teens expected this week.

Flowers of Winter Sun mahonia will not be damaged by temperatures in the teens, with several mahonias just beginning their winter flowering.

Cold on the way

Scattered late blooms of spirea, azalea, and Rankin jasmine vine are a curiosity (particularly as they stray into December), but hardly unusual following mild autumn temperatures. With an extended period of cold overdue, but expected within days, remaining flowers will be ruined with no more expected.

Ogon spirea flowers in late winter, but it is not unusual to see scattered blooms in late autumn.

Camellias have flowered heavily since early October (the best I’ve seen in decades in this garden), and with many unopened buds these are likely to resume flowering once less chilly temperatures return. Winter flowers of camellias are quickly ruined by freezing temperatures, with blooms often brown along the edges, so there are not likely to be perfect pink or white flowers from here on out. Flowers of mahonias are now at their peak, and these will tolerate temperatures to ten degrees and below with no damage.

Surprisingly, Rankin jasmine has flowered through early freezes, with more buds that would continue flowering if mild temperatures remained. But, buds are unlikely to survive an extended period of cold.

While I prowl about the garden regardless of temperature, by week’s end my wife won’t venture outdoors into the cold, even for a minute without bundling up. But, there should be no issues in the garden unless the gardener has neglected to bring tropicals indoors. Otherwise, temperatures will not be severe enough to damage cold hardy plants. With nighttime lows regularly dropping into the twenties, plants are well acclimated by early December, so there’s no reason to worry.

Blooms of the late autumn flowering mahonias will not be damaged by temperatures in the teens and twenties.

Colorful foliage of gordlinia is evergreen, but it is often damaged by temperatures below ten degrees.


Winter is near

Time is short. Winter is near, and more immediately, cold is forecast that should put an end to late season blooms of daphnes, camellias and ‘Autumn Amethyst’ azaleas.

Nighttime temperatures in the teens are likely to put a halt to flowering of ‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphne, though a few scattered blooms could return in an extended spell of mild winter weather.

Scattered flowers are not unusual on ‘Autumn Amethyst’ azalea in early December, but temperatures below twenty degrees are likely to end flowering until late April.

Perhaps camellias will flower again when milder temperatures return. Certainly, there are many unopened buds, and two camellias that are typically tardy, a ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Interlude’ have not opened a single flower yet. Another ‘Winter’s Star’ several paces away flowered beginning in October, and of course I have no explanation why one flowers early and another late except for a slight variation in sun exposure, but this occurs annually.In any case, with abundant flowers through the autumn months, there is some benefit in reserving buds for mild spells in January. Earlier this year, the two camellias flowered January into March. I’ll be quite pleased if winter is mild enough to encourage a repeat. Of course, in a typical winter flowers are quickly ruined, and rarely do flowers fully open before freezing temperatures turn them to brown.

So, with a few days notice prior to the start of winter temperatures, the gardener must take full advantage to view flowers. Despite this cold, and likely worse to follow, there will be flowers through the winter months. Mahonias, witch hazels, and hellebores will flower through the coldest temperatures, but still the gardener wants more. So enjoy, time is short.

Bunches of berries

I prefer plants that require little thinking, ones that do what’s expected without a fuss. There’s more than enough to think about with sunlight exposures and drainage. If I have to consider who’s a male or female, or where a pollinator will come from (if a separate one is needed), I’m in trouble.

While most hollies consistently bear heavy crops of berries, a few don’t, and in the case of a clump of winterberry hollies, I was confounded that the once heavy crop of berries diminished annually until recent years, when there were none. The resolution was several years in the doing as I was slow to notice, then negligent in planting a male after I traced the problem to removal of the pollinator when a grove of bamboo overwhelmed one end of the holly grouping.

Happily, a male winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata ‘Apollo’) planted in spring just as female hollies were flowering had the desired effect. With smaller and more scattered berries, ‘Sparkleberry’ is likely not the best of the winterberries, but these were planted years ago, so there’s no changing at this point. Now, with ‘Apollo’ nearby, at least there are berries again.

Koehneana holly requires a pollinator, but I’m not certain what other holly assures consistently heavy berries.

American hollies in the garden and neighboring forest do not have berries, so I assume these are males, and potential pollinators for other hollies.

Heavy crops of berries are expected on most of the garden’s hollies without having to consider where the pollination is coming from. Perhaps some are pollinated by American hollies (Ilex opaca) that are native to the neighboring forest (and one tall seedling in the garden), or by other hollies that have both male and female flowers (monoecious). As long as there are berries, I don’t need to think about who’s pollinating who.

Centennial Girl holly does not berry as heavily as Koehneana, but it is dependable.

Variegated English holly has exceptional foliage, but never berries in this garden. I presume that nearby potential pollinators do not flower to coincide with English holly.

At least mildly disappointing is the variegated English holly, which has never had a berry. It’s foliage is reason enough to include it in the garden, but the holly would be more splendid with red berries tucked between the distinctive variegated leaves. There is no male English holly in the garden, and without space enough, there probably never will be. Other hollies should be potential pollinators, but the timing of flowering must be wrong, or something, and as it is I don’t have much hope that I’ll ever see berries.

Nandinas often produce berries in large enough clusters that branches arch under the weight. Berries remain red through the winter until early spring when they turn brown and drop.

There are more bunches of berries in the garden, and while bitter tasting berries of nandinas (Nandina domestica) are rarely eaten by birds, the abundant berries make it clear that bees are attracted to the flowers. Nandina is often included on lists of invasive plants, but I’ve seen nothing of the sort in the garden or in the neighboring forest. Yes, a few seedlings pop up within a foot or two of the clumps, but this is as far as the seeds can roll. To become a pest, birds would have to eat and distribute the seeds. I see a few robins peck at the berries in late winter, but they don’t appear to eat more than a few, so by winter’s end most berries remain.

Autumn fading

Flowering of camellias was exceptional through earlier parts of autumn, and though twenty degree nights brought ruin, many buds assure continued flowering for weeks. With nightly freezes common, even with mild afternoons in the forecast, white and pink blooms will frequently be bordered with brown. Still, there is no complaint.

With regular overnight temperatures in the twenties, this developing camellia flower is likely to be damaged.

While the foliage of many Japanese maples turns early in autumn, several delay into November, and these were damaged by freezes, turning immediately from green (or red) to brown. Certainly, there has been another year when this has occurred, but none that I recall. While repeated comments claim an early onset of cold, I suspect this is not at all unusual.

The Fernleaf Japanese maple was a few days from its peak autumn color when consecutive twenty degree nights turned leaves to brown.

The effect is that the typical process has been interrupted. Leaves that would fall after turning red and yellow are now brown, and clinging to trees. While unusual, there is no reason to suspect that any harm has been done.

The foliage of Oakleaf hydrangeas (above) typically turns late, and leathery leaves were not damaged by freezes. As always, with only evergreen foliage nearby, the large, burgundy colored leaves stand out. Also, I note that while foliage color of blueberries varies from year to year, leaves stand out as nearly as darkly colored as the hydrangeas.

Blush Pink nandina is colorful though the year, but colors become more intense with cold weather.

Colorful evergreens such as variegated English holly stand out when neighboring trees and shrubs are bare.

Flowers after the freeze

Despite repeated pleas by my wife, we will not be heading south for the winter. Not that I enjoy the Virginia winter, but her plan sounds costly.

I’m not a fan of the cold, so I’ll be overjoyed if the winter is mild (again), though unusually warm temperatures through the winter did not improve productivity in accomplishing chores a year ago. The mild winter did encourage more abundant winter flowering, so I walked the garden more, and while many of the garden’s successes are mostly a matter of luck, careful planning brings one thing or another into bloom every day through the winter months, frigid temperatures or not.

The newly planted Marvel mahonia is a few weeks behind Sinter Sun in flowering, though Several Winter Sun, Charity, and Underway mahonias that are more shaded are just beginning to bud. These will flower into the new year.

A week ago, consecutive twenty degree nights brought ruin to an inordinately floriferous mid autumn in the garden, though some flowers survived the freeze. Blooms of hybrid mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Marvel’, above) are just getting started, and only when temperatures drop into the low teens do they suffer a chill. While many flowers of camellias suffered in the freezes, several remain heavily budded (below), and these will open in coming weeks with typical late autumn temperatures.

Many Encore azaleas were flowering right up to the cold nights, and though many swollen buds remain, few will flower with temperatures regularly falling below freezing. ‘Autumn Amethyst’ (below) is the exception, and while this azalea is never covered in blooms, occasionally it will flower into December.

‘Ogon’ spirea (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, above) typically flowers in mid March in this garden, but a few stray blooms are not unusual in November. Unexpected, is flowering of Rankin jasmine (Gelsemium rankinii, below). The vine paused through the chilly days, then resumed flowering. Certainly, this cannot continue much longer, though there are numerous buds ready to flower. This is most curious since Rankin performed poorly, with few flowers through the year. I suspect it prefers drier ground than I’ve planted it into, but this week I’ve no complaints.