Buds, green liven up winter scene
Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
One of the few things in the garden world that can mitigate abject melancholy that often comes with these short days is any plant that shows promise of spring. The slightest tinge of green or a swollen bud here or there gives a jolt all out of proportion to what otherwise would seem to be relative insignificance.
I’m not talking about some anomaly, i.e. a freak out-of-season blossom on an old pear tree in November or even that single winsome snowdrop that popped up in our garden two months ago. Those are temporary and elusive, not apt to recur for years.
On the other hand, there is that aforementioned sliver of green or those fat buds that are normal and dependable winter occurrences.
The stringy leaves of grape hyacinths begin to put forth from the soil in September, and thicken and lengthen until hard freezes stop them. They lie askew and prostrate — but green — until flower stems push up amongst them in April.
Other bulbous plants likewise. Starflowers, Ipheion uniflorum, spear up in autumn about the same time as the grape hyacinths, while the wan mauve flowers are spring features.
This is an unsung plant, tough as nails and naturalizing under almost any conditions. It should be at the top of your spring bulb list. Most mail order bulb merchants carry them while, alas, they are almost never seen in local outlets.
Some daffodils and jonquils make early appearances. Strangely enough, some of the latest to bloom in spring sprout new leaves the earliest, sometimes by October.
The old-fashioned little penny-size jonquils that graced our grandmothers’ gardens are among these. Their breath-taking fragrance is so pervasive that the smell of a single bloom will permeate a large room. Some strains of them don’t bloom until April, later than some of their kin, yet the slender round foliage has been evident in our gardens for months already.
Even later blooming is Hawera, a triandrus hybrid, with pale yellow flowers borne up to six per stem. It flowers in late April and has similar dainty foliage.
All of these have linear, thin leaves which die away without much ado, making them good for early bloom in a border with later perennials. Our borders are rife with them, and none of their leaves will be noticed by mid-May.
What of those buds?
Among those with the greatest degree of promise — that is, large — are those of the oriental magnolias, i.e. “tulip” magnolias. They are formed in late summer and held on the bare branches all winter, noticeable at even some distance. They are furry and plump, some an inch long or more.
A star magnolia by our front walk is in full bud by leaf-fall in October and the fat buds, mouse-colored and fuzzy, do not go without attention by visitors, many of whom, though non-gardeners, are smitten by them.
Rhodendrons have big buds all winter, though they are not as prominent among the evergreen leaves. Deciduous azaleas, with smaller buds, still demand scrutiny because of their greater bud count on bare branches.
Then there are the arums. We have large masses (it takes a while) of Arum italicum Pictum, variegated Italian arum. This plant’s most valuable characteristic is the winter leaves, though big stalks of red berries in summer are worthwhile, even if birds make short shrift of them.
The leaves of this arum are arrowhead-shaped and up to a foot long, green with prominent white veining. They sprout in fall and die down in late spring. Though they appear fragile and subject to freezes, they stand strong until temperatures sink into the single digits, when they wilt to the ground. Just as soon as the weather moderates, however, they’re back up and erect. A large stand of arum provides a veritable carpet of green during winter, just when it is needed most.
From Poor Willie’s Almanack — Green up your winter.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 1.11.11