Tag Archives: winter bloomers

1st Reason to Love Public Gardens: Witch Hazel

When you cultivate a plot of land as small as I do, you learn quickly to appreciate acres and acres of professionally landscaped and maintained garden. Today’s adventure was to Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, a  92 acre botanical garden just inside the city limits of Philadelphia. It used to be the summer home of John and Lydia Morris, who left their little plot to Penn in 1932 because they were dedicated to horticultural education. They kindly planted loads of  lovely plants and conveniently tagged them with both common and latin names. (Just didn’t want anyone to think I actually KNEW all this information).

Primavera Witchhazel - hemamelis x intermedia primavera

So there are tons of reasons why I love  botanical gardens. First, my favorite ones all used to be private estates. Part of the fun for me,  I’ll admit, is  to imagine what it would be like to live in the big house on the hill and watch your team of gardeners create and maintain this paradise for your own back yard. A little bit of role-play never hurt any of us, no matter our age.  Second, everything is always just right. The house lines up with the trees which line up with the lake which lines up with the paths.  They look amazing in all four seasons. There are no weeds in botanical gardens. They are just right. Third,  there are just so many darn plants.  I took hundreds of pictures of beautiful things today, and it’s January 31. Imagine what a bounty I’ll bring home in May.

Wintersweet witch hazel - chimononthus praecox

Wintersweet witch hazel - chimononthus praecox

Part of the joy of the “so many darn plants” scenario is that you get to see multiple cultivars of the same plant. The star today was witch hazel, because it’s 28 degrees and it snowed yesterday, but these guys are blooming their heads off. I’m a witch hazel newbie, but according to internet sources, there are three kinds of witch hazel: the North American native  (hemamelis americana), the japanese version (hemamelis japonica) and the chinese witch hazel (hemamelis mollis). The hamamelis x intermedia is a cross between Japanese and Chinese cultivars.  They grow to be 10-20 feet tall and 15-20 feet wide.

Orange Beauty Witchhazel - Hamamelis x intermedia "orange beauty"

But here’s the interesting thing. I googled “witch hazel” and had to really search for information on the plants themselves. The vast majority of the information was about the herbal remedy that comes from this shrub’s bark. This astringent reportedly clears up pimply skin (where was this information when I was in high school?) soothes diaper rash, reduces hemorrhoids (Tuck’s pads, anyone?), shrinks bags under your eyes, relieves varicose veins, reduces pain from poison ivy and oak (two of the less friendly plants native to N. America), heals skin ailments ranging from sunburn to dry skin to chicken pox blisters to bruises, and provides an important ingredient (along with a good amount of vodka, interestingly enough) for making your own deodorant. An impressive list without a doubt.

Lansing Witchhazel - hemamelis Lansing

So, if you ever have an occasional breakout, if you have child-birth induced complications (I see at least two listed above), if you sometimes look in dismay at the dark circles under your eyes, if you engage in outdoor activities which  might bring you in contact with poisonous plants, bruise inducing garden tools or the sun: this is the plant for you. (Do I sound like a snake oil salesperson to anyone besides myself?)

Rochester Witchhazel - hemamelis rochester

Seriously, I would love to have the space to grow one of these, because they really do bloom in the depths of winter. And who wouldn’t want to get rid of those dark circles??

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Contain your Cabbage, Make a Friend

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gardener in possession of a lovely plant will not be in want of a friend. (Forgive me, Jane Austen).

Courtney's Cabbage

Okay, here’s the story. I promised myself when I started this blog that I would never post an ugly picture. In my quest to find blooms around me even in January in Philadelphia, I knew I would want to address the ornamental cabbage. The problem lies in the fact that I, as rule, find ornamental cabbages quite unattractive.  To me, they look faded and dirty and wilted. Especially the white ones. I kept my eyes peeled for said cabbages, anyway, tending to find them only in roadside beds in front of WholeFoods, the high rise condos, the cabinet company, the reformed temple, the outdoor mall. No pretty pictures to be had here. Never mind the fact that I would have to risk life and limb to park, get out of the car, and take a picture on the major thoroughfares of the Delaware Valley. I guess these establishments contract with landscaping companies to rip out the faded vincas or impatiens at the end of the growing season and plant up row upon row of ornamental cabbage. Winter color, hey, I love it. But these guys are just ugly.

Or, so I thought until I took a nice, sunny walk around my neighborhood the other day. I had been searching for these cabbages (officially a kale species, fyi) in residential landscapes, but was coming up woefully short. They seemed resigned to their destiny as strip mall accessories. But there they were in front of a neighbor’s home, just two of them, thriving in pots perfectly sized and suited to their particular mounding growth habit. The containers lifted them off the ground and highlighted them as  specimens, rather than trying to make them work as mass plantings.  They flanked the front porch and actually looked pretty. Pretty enough to photograph, even.

Cabage contained.

The car was in the driveway and the front door was ajar, so I figured I’d knock and ask permission to take a picture. I didn’t want any startled homeowner calling the cops because of the strange woman trapsing about the yard. A cute toddler came to the door and tried valiantly to let me in. Soon came the mom, who very graciously agreed to my request and then said, “Hey! Don’t our kids go to the same preschool?” Indeed they do. We’d been at the same school for a few years, but in different classes, so our paths had never crossed directly. We needed a cabbage to bring us together! Now I have a pretty picture of a cabbage and a new friend. Gardens are so great.

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To do in September: Plant Snowdrops

The problem with the winter garden is that there is precious little you can do to improve it in the winter. Gardening in general takes forward thinking and faith.  The 2 foot sapling that you might trip over on the way out for a jog today will shade your home years from now. But spring, summer and fall give us wiggle room. If we forgot to plan for blooms or foliage in one corner of the garden, a quick trip to the garden center for a flat of annuals can fix us right up. We can even move containers of lush tropicals around to pretty up those problem spots.

Not so in winter. Any beauty that shows up in the winter gardens was arranged for months or years ago. Plant a flowering shrub that holds its dried flowers ‘till spring – you’ve got winter interest. Add a berry bearer – there’s your winter color. Bury early blooming bulbs – you’ve got flowers in January! Check out what’s BLOOMING in my garden:

Snowdrops (galanthus), 1-21-2010

Again, I have my neighbors to thank for planning ahead. (Remember, I’ve psychologically annexed all the yards within walking distance of my home as “my garden.”) I know you have to plant bulbs in the fall. I plant bulbs in the fall. Why oh why have I never thought to plant super early blooming bulbs in the fall? These beauties are snowdrops (galanthus). According to various internet sources, there are over 75 species of these little gems that originated in Europe and Asia minor. They are thought to have been introduced to England by the Romans in the 16th century, and I guess they made their way across the pond to Pennsylvania with some colonial gardeners who had that forward thinking down.  They bloom really early in the winter – in warmer zones they can bloom from fall all the way through. They don’t like warm winters, though. Ha – they’re one thing those southern California gardeners will have to envy in our gardens. They multiply well, especially if you help them along by dividing clumps after the flowers have faded but while the foliage still looks happy. And, did I mention, they bloom in January?!?!?!

So – another resolution. I will plant snowdrops in September. Apparently, the bulbs don’t store well, so they’re only on shelves for a short time. I will seek them out. I will plant them. I will have blooms in my garden (my real garden) next January!

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