A small collection of early flowering magnolias

A swath of forest borders the southern property line so that tall maples and tulip poplars shade much of the garden through the winter, until the sun takes a more northerly route to bring much of the rear garden into afternoon sunlight by mid spring. The winter shade is not dense, filtered through deciduous trees, but it is enough to delay flowering of magnolias by a week or longer than ones just up the street. I expect that by the time I photograph and report on the flowering of a tree or shrub, it is often old news for gardens in the neighborhood, and most certainly for folks thirty five miles east and closer to the city that is warmer by a full zone. Still, I’m early for North Dakota.

In this garden the earliest magnolia to flower is ‘Dr. Merrill’ (Magnolia × loebneri ‘Merrill’, above), which towers over the shrubby ‘Royal Star’ (M. stellata ‘Royal Star’, below) that is down the gentle slope by thirty feet, and perhaps a bit more shaded tucked beside the garden shed. ‘Dr. Merrill’ is not rare, but uncommon enough that I cannot verify that all flower earlier than ‘Royal Star’, or that in this garden it is a matter of a more shaded exposure.

Flowering can begin as early as late February, or a few weeks later after a colder winter, and annually flowers are threatened by freezes, with blooms of ‘Royal Star’ most vulnerable to damage. Once the magnolias are flowering, the gardener anxiously follows the weather forecast, not that there is thing to be done if freezes are on the way.

Flowers of Elizabeth quickly went limp and turned brown after flowering early, then being exposed to twenty degree temperatures.

Flowers of Elizabeth quickly went limp and turned brown after flowering early, then being exposed to twenty degree temperatures.

The pale yellow ‘Elizabeth’ (M. ‘Elizabeth’, above) and purple flowered ‘Jane’ (M. ‘Jane’, below) bloom a few weeks later, even with sunnier positions, and at this later date the chances for damaging freezes are lessened. A year ago, ‘Elizabeth’ flowered weeks early in the unusually warm March, and a poorly timed freeze followed that blackened blooms just as they opened and were most vulnerable. After exceptionally warm late February temperatures, buds are swelling that indicate premature flowering might be on the way again. ‘Jane’ suffered minimal injury to flowers, but with a collection of early flowering magnolias, the gardener must figure that there’s a good chance that one or the other will suffer from an ill timed freeze. There’s always next year.Jane magnolia - early April

Freeze damage to flowers of cherries, and dogwoods?

Last evening, a local television weather person lamented the demise of cherry and dogwood flowers in the recent freeze, while cautioning that more of the same cold was on tap for later in the week. Clearly, she was not a gardener, for the damaged blooms were cherries and magnolias, not dogwoods. Even if dogwoods flower weeks early, they will not appear until nearer the end of March.

While there are few surprises, with flowers arriving weeks early following this very mild winter, one autumn flowering camellia (Camellia ‘Winter’s Star’, below) has finally gotten around to blooming. This is late, not seven months early, as the plump flower buds showed no signs of opening  in November while neighboring camellias bloomed in profusion.

And, this is not so unusual, since this particular camellia often flowers as others are fading, with some buds delayed in opening until a warm spell in January, when the flowers typically last for a day until the next freeze turns them to brown. That is likely to be the fate of this camellia’s flowers this week, though they’ll last for a few more days until the next freeze.

Don’t ask why this camellia is flowering months late, it’s beyond my comprehension. But, one thing I do know. Most years, the unopened flower buds are freeze dried by February, and though I wonder why the camellia didn’t flower earlier in the extraordinarily warm second half of winter, it’s no wonder that the buds didn’t freeze dry when there was hardly a freeze.

After twenty-eight years, the garden remains one inexplicable curiosity after another.

Minimal damage from the freeze

With a swing in temperature from seventy-five to sixteen within a week, the gardener is not surprised that some damage is done to late winter blooms. There is relief that injury to flowers and to newly emerging leaves is minimal in this garden, that probably fared better than others since magnolias and camellias that are most vulnerable to cold damage were delayed by shade, with many flowers not fully opened.

Flowers of Winter daphne opened in seventy degree temperatures a week ago. Now, many flowers have been injured after 19 and 16 degree nights.

Flowers of Winter daphne opened in seventy degree temperatures a week ago. Now, many flowers have been injured after 19 and 16 degree nights.

The early blooming Okame cherry is more tolerant of freezing temperatures than early magnolias, but the cherry's flowers were fully open and suffered more damage in this freeze.

The early blooming Okame cherry is more tolerant of freezing temperatures than early magnolias, but the cherry’s flowers were fully open and suffered more damage in this freeze.

A scattered few flowers of ‘Dr. Merrill’ and ‘Royal Star’ magnolias wilted in the cold, and these are likely to turn brown in the next few days, but most buds remain wrapped tightly enough to be protected from the freeze. Hardest hit were flowers of Winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Marginata’, above), which is somewhat surprising for a shrub that will occasionally flower in early February. Magnolias in sunnier spots in the neighborhood suffered considerably, but this is not unusual for late winter flowers, and no harm is done except that blooms are lost.

Flowers of paperbushes were not damaged by cold.

Flowers of paperbushes were not damaged by cold.

Flowers of narcissus, hellebores, spireas, paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, above), mahonias, and andromedas (Pieris japonica, below) were not damaged, as expected, though there was less certainty going into the cold weekend since there is no experience for comparison with the number of seventy degree days over the last two weeks of February. Most comforting, leaves of hydrangeas that were just emerging were not damaged as they were a year ago with a freeze in early April that stunted flowering through the year. While this low lying garden runs a bit cold, and shade from a forest along the southern border delays spring growth, I’ve seen hydrangeas in a more advanced state in area gardens. Hopefully, these fared as well as ones in this garden.

Flowers of Dorothy Wycoff pieris and other cultivars suffered no damage in the recent freeze.

Flowers of Dorothy Wycoff pieris and other cultivars suffered no damage in the recent freeze.

The early flowering Ogon spirea easily tolerates late freezes.

The early flowering Ogon spirea easily tolerates late freezes.

The end of cold winters, forever

In this unusually mild winter, and a particularly warm February, it is unsurprising for gardeners to pronounce the end of cold winters forever, all due, of course, to the warming of the planet. Certainly, I cannot recite numbers to document temperatures changes, but from a gardener’s prospective I can confirm exceptionally mild winters in four of six years. Also through this period were consecutive winters with long periods of below freezing temperatures and multiple days below zero for the first time in a few decades, so while warm winters are not a given, extremes in one direction or the other seem guaranteed.

I am only an observer, sometimes a victim of the cold, and this winter the beneficiary of the unusual warmth, so it is not for me to understand the significance of these extreme variations. Gardeners are prone to expecting the worst, so I would not be at all surprised if next winter swings back the other way, though I acknowledge that the odds favor warmer rather than colder.

The variegated Dove tree is the only of three newly delivered trees that was dormant, though leaf buds are swollen.

The variegated Dove tree is the only of three newly delivered trees that was dormant, though leaf buds are swollen.

A few days ago, I received by mail order three small trees from Oregon that could never be found in the garden center. A month ago, I decided on late February delivery to minimize the chances that these oddities would be frozen in transit, or while waiting for me to put them into pots. I figured that trees arriving from Oregon would be dormant, and was surprised that they were beginning to leaf. Probably, these were growing in a protected structure, a greenhouse or covered house, and now, the challenge will be to protect the fragile foliage from damage until the threat of freeze is past. While recent temperatures have been in the seventies, somewhat colder weather is on the way, and any drop into the twenties will be a problem for the tender leaves.

Orange Dream, one of the Japanese maples added a year ago. The still small tree will remain in a pot on the patio until a spot is found for it.

Orange Dream, one of the Japanese maples added a year ago. The still small tree will remain in a pot on the patio until a spot is found for it.

Three small Japanese maples delivered a few weeks ago are partially submerged in soil in one large container, and besides slightly swelling buds these show no sign of leafing any time soon. For these, I have no concern, and they’ll be moved into smaller pots sometime in the next few weeks. There’s no rush, but the the three newly delivered, partially leafed trees will have to remain protected, probably by moving them back and forth from the slightly warmer garage, and then back outdoors for sunlight.Hellebore

For the over enthusiastic gardener, thinking that spring has arrived, there’s a danger in getting started too early, and probably garden centers will be cautious and not stock petunias or other tender annuals until the time is right. At this point in late winter, there’s no problem in planting woodies and dormant perennials, and recently I’ve planted a few more hellebores. It was, of course, essential to add a few new varieties to the many dozens I’ve already planted, and even if temperatures should drop into the teens, these should not have a problem.Hellebore

Expect the worst?

Saturday morning update –

Temperatures dropped below twenty degrees overnight, but surprisingly, no damage to flowers is evident this morning. I expected magnolia (below) and camellia flowers to be most vulnerable, but even these escaped damage. It is likely that flowers that have fully opened are more susceptible to cold injury, so other gardens might not be so fortunate. Also, no damage was seen on early leaves of hydrangeas and lilacs. Tonight, temperatures are forecast to be a few degrees colder, so one more day until the worst is past.

Early flowering magnolias were not damaged by 19 degree temperatures overnight. Tonight could drop to 16, so I'll anxiously check again tomorrow morning. There is nothing I can do to protect trees from cold injury, but of course I'd prefer to see flowers.

Early flowering magnolias were not damaged by 19 degree temperatures overnight. Tonight could drop to 16, so I’ll anxiously check again tomorrow morning. There is nothing I can do to protect trees from cold injury, but of course I’d prefer to see flowers.

Happily, I report no damage from the first cold night following the recent extended period of late February warmth. While a day or two of mild temperatures is not unusual for this period, repeated days in the sixties and seventies are not typical, with the result that many trees and shrubs are flowering (or beginning to flower) earlier than usual. But, not much earlier, so little damage is expected other than possibly to early flowering magnolias (‘Dr. Merrill’ magnolia, below) that are at risk of injury to blooms by freezing temperatures in any late winter.

Dr. Merrill magnolia

I hear reports that lilacs have broken bud (below), and the most significant harm might be to trees and shrubs that break into leaf early. While most flowers, and foliage of spring bulbs will not be harmed by cold, tender leaves are readily damaged by temperatures that drop into the low twenties. No, there’s no way to stop trees and shrubs from leafing, but cooler temperatures should slow their progress.

The tree lilac beginning to break into leaf. It is likely that this will slow down with cooler temperatures, and I expect no damage.

The tree lilac beginning to break into leaf. It is likely that this will slow down with cooler temperatures, and I expect no damage.

Ogon spirea flowers and leafs out very early every year, so it is unsurprising to see tiny leaves in late February. It is unlikely these will be bothered by the cold.

Ogon spirea flowers and leafs out very early every year, so it is unsurprising to see tiny leaves in late February. It is unlikely these will be bothered by the cold.

Without dipping into the debate relating to the warming of the planet, unusual weather is expected in late winter. Drastic swings occur annually, with one plant or another in danger at some point. The gardener is advised not to overreact. Rarely is injury from any extreme as bad as the gardener anticipates, and most often plants recover more quickly than expected from adversity.

Variegated winter daphne will occasionally flower in mid February, so flowering late in the month is not unexpected.

Variegated winter daphne will occasionally flower in mid February, so flowering late in the month is not unexpected.

Finally, after tips of buds showed color for weeks, the Winter daphnes were pushed into bloom after several days in the seventies. While my sense of smell is lacking, my wife reports that the fragrance is delightful. I hear repeated comments that daphnes are finicky, but I’ve experienced little of this other than continued failure with the low growing Rock daphne. Several times, the variegated Winter daphne has been buried under deep piles of snow along the driveway, with the flexible stems springing back as soon as snow melts. Scarlett O'Hara pieris

With continued warm temperatures through February, I expected to see early swelling of buds on the various andromedas (Pieris japonica), but flower buds remained tightly wrapped. After five days of seventy degrees, most are flowering, and the few that are lagging should flower soon. Cooler temperatures will hardly slow this progress, and flowers are not threatened by nighttime freezes.   Dorothy Wycoff pieris

Winter’s on its way out

I suspect that I am not the only gardener who has gotten a jump on his spring cleanup. In a more typical winter, with only a few spells of warmth I am likely to waste the days in less productive pursuits, and this was true until a few weeks ago. Now, the early weeks of spring must not be consumed by endless labor, though in this one acre garden there is never a lack of chores that must be accomplished.Hellebore

I must report on the casual research regarding squirrels and our birdfeeder. Possibly, the feeding habits of neighborhood squirrels are too ingrained, and they are too dependent on this accessible feeder. The addition of pepper seasoning to sunflower seed was a temporary discouragement, but a subsequent change to safflower seed was most successful. But, not completely, as several squirrels visit daily, though clearly for shorter feeding sessions.hellebore

I cannot recall a time when so many hellebores were flowering at this date. Certainly, there have been recent years when they bloomed earlier, with flowers fading with the occasional freeze in February, which of course have been rare this winter. I note a few hellebore seedlings that were transplanted are flowering, probably two years after they were large enough to move. Flowers of some are identical to those of parent plants, while others are a somewhat interesting pink, though this color is not so outstanding that I would choose it off the garden center shelf.Hellebore

I once read a gardener’s claim that hellebores should be considered as invasive, and yes, some seed vigorously, but it seems the only hazard is that seedlings might overwhelm the original clump. In a few plantings, yellow-green flowers mix with dark purple, but in recent years I’ve weeded excess seedlings out to let the few grow on, and then these are transplanted in their second year. If the day comes when the garden is overrun, I expect that family and neighbors will willingly accept the excess.Snowdrops

Happily, now that most all of the snowdrops are up and blooming, it is apparent that these are multiplying nicely along the driveway and the front walk. None are where they might be seen from the road, even as neighbors walk by on mild February afternoons. Few winter flowers are borne in such mass as to be as obvious as an azalea or a cherry, so the gardener should be forgiven for arranging flower only for his enjoyment, and not sharing. If neighbors care to tour the garden, with an early start cleaning up, it’s as good as it gets for late winter.

Winter winds down

As this mild winter winds into March (the Virginia gardeners’ spring), I do not question for a moment the small effort required to plant a winter garden. Without flowers of hellebores, Winter jasmine, and witch hazels, winter would seem interminable. I greatly sympathize with gardeners in more northern climes where winter drags on, where gardens are covered by snow for weeks and longer. Hellebores and snowdrops are buried, and while lush magazine gardens and seed catalogs might offer some relief, taller witch hazels or red stemmed shrubs can be of some consolation.

many hellebores began flowering in late January, which is only slightly early in this garden.

Many hellebores began flowering in late January, which is only slightly early in this garden.

Should the gardener feel ashamed for his joy in mild winters? Even while fretting over the planet’s future, he revels in the relative warmth of this winter, and while snow and ice can be lovely, the gardener is immensely more pleased by a single snowdrop in late January than the quiet stillness of a deep blanket of snow. Despite a general warming, one area or another might suffer through a colder or snowier winter, but the gardener feels no guilt that extremes have been avoided.

This double flowered snowdrop began flowering in mid February, while others started in January.

This double flowered snowdrop began flowering in mid February, while others started in January.

In this garden, winter flowers have been around for enough years so that the gardener recognizes varying schedules that define the winters. In the coldest, or when snow covers the garden through much of February, the gardener is delighted when hellebores and snowdrops first peak through the melting snow. Perhaps this is relief that winter might finally be approaching its end.Crocus began flowering the third week of February.

While this winter will prove to be considerably warmer than average by the numbers, the progression of flowers has been only slightly advanced. But, this earlier schedule is most appreciated by the gardener, who is satisfied by blooms of mahonias that persist through the early cold of January while he anxiously awaits the fragrant flowers of Vernal witch hazels. Then, in quick succession, he notes the first snowdrop and a peek of color from one hellebore.

A few scattered Winter aconites flower in late February.

A few scattered Winter aconites flower in late February.

Cyclamen flowering in late February.

Cyclamen flowering in late February.

In the spell of warmth that follows, there are more flowers of snowdrops and hellebores, and then hybrid witch hazels with larger flowers so that the lower garden is filled with their scents. The few stray Winter aconites come into bloom, along with the few scattered flowers from cyclamen that had been forgotten about since they are partially obscured by an evergreen carex.

Typically, Leatherleaf mahonia begins flowering early in March, but with recent warm temperatures it began to show color by mid February.

Typically, Leatherleaf mahonia begins flowering early in March, but with recent warm temperatures it began to show color by mid February.

While the autumn flowering mahonias, ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’, are finally fading from bloom, the late winter flowering Leatherleaf mahonia will be at peak bloom after a few more warm afternoons. The tubular blooms of paperbushes show the first yellow along the edges, and while these have shown color in prior winters as early as late January, there are also colder winters when flowers do  not show color until mid March. Most certainly, I prefer the earlier schedule.

The first color showing on paperbushes in late February. Peak flowering will be in two weeks, which is not far from the average.

The first color showing on paperbushes in late February. Peak flowering will be in two weeks, which is not far from the average.