In Praise of Winter Stalwarts

Old man sun crossed the equinox right on schedule early last week. The spring parade begins. Redbud, crabapple, serviceberry, lady banks rose, forsythia, spireas, flowering almond, liberated by light from winter’s deep sleep, are racing to be brightest and best.

Native azalea canescens, a froth of color, can fade quickly in warm spring weather

Over them all, big pines are casting pollen into the wind. Water swirls with windrows of yellow streamers as breezes toss the minute, dusty grains at will. Changing constellations of spent Carolina jessamine blossoms, sharp and bright yellow in a western sun, bob through patterns of pollen.

Turtles, shells shiny wet, climb out of the water to bask on their logs. Turtles do not have a reputation for great activity once settled, so as their shells dry, they take on the dusty patina of pine pollen. This seems most appropriate for turtles who are probably happier to be basking under a spring rain of pollen than mucking around in winter-cold mud. But who am I to presume to know a turtle’s mind.

One of the trees that had to go after Irene hit. Actually had a hole through the middle of its trunk at ground level

It’s so intoxicating, I want it to last forever. But much as I love the flamboyant spring bloomers, I know they are fickle. They flash and fall in the heat of a day or the blast of a storm.

Unlike the stalwarts of winter that bloom early, stay late, and defy impossible weather.

During cold rainy months, these were the plants that brightened our days and polished our tarnished yard.

For the garden was at a low point this winter. Parts of it were/are still mired in the flotsam of Hurricane Irene. Fallen trees had to be cut into manageable chunks for hauling out of sight. Sawdust piled up and heavy limbs littered paths and beds. Carefully chosen logs that once defined paths had gone off with waves that surged during the storm. Carefully laid mulch had followed the logs or stayed behind and settled where it didn’t belong.

The scattered remains of trees, still too heavy for us to haul off, wait to be downsized

Our dock had some time ago gone atilt (a-slipping and sliding in the mud?) so it was a bit tricky to maneuver without taking a tumble. Old rotted planks, rusty nails looming, had to be torn up and there they lay in piles like jackstraws until a new dock emerged after endless afternoons of figuring and sawing, figuring and hammering, figuring and perfecting, all performed by the outstanding team of Bob the Builder and Tim his Friend.

The old dock

On top of these scattered ruins, an endless shower of leaves piled up and a rank army of weeds invaded. We wondered if we would ever get things right again.

When the winter stalwarts began to bloom, the mess didn’t seem to matter so much. Our eyes left the eyesores and focused on fresh new color from plants that are comfortable in our garden. They don’t demand much except reasonably good garden soil, maybe some fertilizer, maybe not, and decent drainage. How they love

Team Bob and Tim. Things are looking up

blooming under an open, twiggy, leafless sky with that winter sun all to themselves. They ask so little, yet they remain handsome through heat and drought and humidity.

I hope you enjoy this gallery of my winter favorites. They never fail to lift our spirits during the gray days of winter as we stroll paths or look out the windows from a cozy vantage point. 

Edgeworthia

Edgeworthia: Without leaves, a funny looking pile of sticks, but fragrant, oh so fragrant from January to early March. We planted it near our front door, its stark lines softened by a backdrop of camellias, for instant sensory gratification.

Daffodils Tete a Tete

Daffodils: For us, diminutive, wandery Tete a Tete and fragrant Ice Follies and Carlton are reliable standouts in sub-freezing weather, dry summers and wet winters. I like the masses of blue-green vertical accents in the early spring garden.

Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis)

Lenten Rose: Such subtle shades and subtle changes to the flowers as they age. The plants went missing after Hurricane Isabel, are back now with vigor. We remove ratty leaves, cut blooms after they drop and transplant seedlings after a couple of years growing.

Magnolia ‘Jane’

Magnolia Jane: Never fails to inspire us. One of the popular little girl hybrids with tulip-like flowers that’s sold everywhere. It blooms sporadically through summer.

Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’

Magnolia Leonard Messel: Early bloomer, a mass of pale pink and white strap flowers dainty and fragrant. I planted a ten-incher in rich soil ten years ago and now it’s more than ten feet.

Quince ‘Jet Trail’

Quince: Thorny, twiggy, tangly, but such a reliable workhorse. Jet Trail and Common Quince begin blooming punctually on January 1st. In our neck of the woods, Common Quince defoliates in the heat and drought of summer.

Common Quince

Each of these quinces follows its own course of bloom: Common slowly reaches a crescendo and holds a high note till mid-March. Jet Trail sends out sparks, then explodes into one long fireworks display that gradually disappears in April.

Camellia japonica ‘Anticipation’

Camellia: A tough, handsome, evergreen, a southern favorite. Hard freezes kill flowers but tight buds survive to bloom another day. Drought tolerant. We fertilize in spring use horticultural oil spray for tea scale and prune when needed. See our Camellia discussion.

Loropetalum var. rubrum ‘Ruby’

Loropetalum: Imposing. Extravagant. Explodes into bloom in February. In our garden shiny deep ruby red leaves, magenta flowers under magnolia Jane’s blossoms create a wild winter display. Disease-free, deer-resistant.

Spirea ‘Ogon’

Spirea ‘ogon’: Earliest blooming spirea we know of, a fountain of tiny white blooms in February followed by glowing chartreuse leaves all season. Modest size.

Spirea 'Ogon' shines during its first autumnEach fall Spirea ‘Ogon’ delights us yet again with its orange glow. A fast grower, ‘Ogon’ had been in our garden for only 6 months when this picture was taken. 

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter honeysuckle: A way-station for hungry bees. Blooms hidden under old ratty leaves from January through March but oh, so fragrant. Rangy, suckering, unkempt until new leaves glow in a spring sun.

Winter Daphne

Winter daphne: Our one finicky plant. Planted high and dry to keep the wilts away. And still it may succumb. Its fragrance wafts across the yard on the slightest winter breeze so we pamper it a bit.

To all of you stalwarts: I have welcomed the good cheer you’ve given us in the past and I look forward to your visits next winter.

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