Saturday, April 01, 2006

Early Flowers

Winter is not especially cold on Cape Cod, compared to other parts of New England, but it lasts long into the season when other areas of the region are enjoying spring. I try to make it less dreary by planting things that bloom in late winter or very early spring.

The season starts for me around the New Year, with Stinking Hellebores - don't be put off by the name. Helleborus foetidus is the very first flower to bloom in my garden, with its white or pale green flowers nodding above glossy, finely cut, deep green, evergreen foliage. It has no scent, pleasant or otherwise, that I can detect. It grows in shade in my yard, but apparently can take part sun too. Its evergreen foliage is also good in summer, as a foil to the flowers of its neighbors. It self-sows freely, but not aggressively, and seedlings are fairly easy to move around. They're also very easy to give away, to anyone who likes the idea of winter flowers.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise' begins blooming - bright yellow - in early February. Although I've got two other cultivars, Diane and Jelena, which are reddish and bronzy, respectively, that begin blooming around the same time as 'Arnold,' HE is the star because of his long period of bloom. This year, this 8 foot tall shrub has been in full bloom for at least six weeks. The flowers are a lovely clear yellow. The foliage is uninteresting, even slightly coarse; I have it planted outside a west window, where I can enjoy the flowers backlit by the seting sun. In summer, it serves as a backdrop to a mixed order of hydrangea, gaura, tall sedums, and lavender.

Around the same time as the Witch Hazels begin their yellow and orange show, low mounds of pink. purple and white Winter Heath (Erica carnea) burst into bloom. I love the fine texture of these plants, and the slightly wild look. They like dry, sunny sites, though the local heather farm has them growing wild and blooming in the woods. In summer, their "off-season," they look very much like dwarf conifers. My favorite, an unnamed variety with deep purple flowers, is sited right outside my office window; it's backed by a row of cotoneaster and makes a great contrast to the glossy leaves and deep red berries of that shrub.

The Christmas Rose, H. niger, doesn't bloom anywhere around the holiday, but is in full force by early- or mid- March. Its upright white flowers acquire a pink cast over time, its foliage is a smoky green, slightly mottled; good enough to make me treasure this plant even if it wasn't a winter flower source. About the same time as the Christmas Rose, Lenten Rose (H. orientalis, aka H. x hybridus) begins to bloom. The foliage is quite different from H. niger, the plant is larger, and there's a teriffic range of colors available. I've got everything from a deep plum to white, some of the flowers are spotted or streaked with another color. The foliage often looks quite ratty by the time the blooms appear, and most gardeners remove this to make the plant look better. The down side of H. orientalis, other than the need to remove much of the foliage in early spring, is that the flower heads often hang down, so that the casual observer misses their stunning faces.

Jasminium nudiflorum is a wonderful lax shrub, which means it is grown as a vine but needs support for its stems. It begins blooming with forsythia-like flowers just after the witch hazels in my yard; unlike them, though, it takes quite a bit of shade. I have it on a lattice fence, and occasionally tie the stems to the lattice.

About the time that the winter Jasmine blooms, a small stand of Winter Aconite flowers in the front garden, in full sun. This is a new plant to me, picked up at the WOods Hole Library plant sale alast year. Its cheerful yellow flowers are finished at the end of March but are followed by very nice dainty foliage.

This year is the first for my Cylamen coum tubers. They look quite a bit like florists cyclamen, the type grown as a houseplant, but the flowers and the entire plant is much smaller. These are said to be hard to establish, so I planted about two dozen tubers last year, hoping some would survive and establish a colony under the Merrill magnolia in the streetside garden. They're blooming for the first time this March, having started out sparsely but looking quite lively on April first.

The Merill is blooming now, April first, its first flowers just opening. The fuzzy buds, which form during the winter, always prompt passersby to ask if i's a pussywillow.

Also blooming now are Cornus Mas, the Cornelian Cherry, a small tree with tiny, bright yellow flowers, and Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn,' Dawn Viburnum. It has small deep pink flowers that remind me of a redbud. First year blooms are also out on Winter Honeysuckle, Lonicera Fragrantissima. This is a very large, robust shrub, it should be sited near a path to make the most of its fragrance. Unfortunately, it has a somewhat unkempt-looking shape. It belongs in a yard much larger than mine, but I needed to try it, so I planted three last spring. It was obvious within weeks that these plants were going to be much too big for the space I'd allotted them in the streetside garden, so I've moved two to more remote parts of the yard. One is along the back fence, where we may mostly miss its perfume, but it should help obscure the view of the back fence.


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