Saturday, January 26, 2013

Embracing Winter

Lonicera fragrantissima buds were swelling a few weeks ago during a warm spell. I brought them into the house and they perfumed my office for a few days.
Heptacodium bark is amazing in the winter.

Day 255
The Daily DuBrule

I am not a fan of winter. The older I get, the colder I get. I miss my flowers desperately. They feed my soul. I look outside at the barren landscape and I think to myself "I should find this beautiful". Instead, I find myself wishing for color, lushness, greenery. 

I wish I could say that I vacation in warm places every winter but, so far, I haven't done that. For many years I took care of my elderly parents and only went away on business trips, all the while worrying that something would happen to them while I was gone. Contrary to what most people imagine, when you own a garden center and landscaping business, winter is a really busy time. You have to buy all of your products for the following year, organize your employees, take inventory, and design and estimate new landscape jobs for the coming spring. In the early days of my business, I was so poor that I did everything myself and began the spring completely exhausted. 

Now, in year thirty, I have excellent help. My parents are gone. And this is the first winter ever that I actually have had time to rest, relax, and think straight. It is an amazing gift, to be time rich. So back to embracing winter. I spend a lot of time in my home office which is a sunroom. I have a great view of the outdoors, with birdfeeders next to the window and a lovely sunset that includes a long view of blue hills framed by 'Midwinter Fire' orange twiggy dogwoods. Why aren't I content? I am wishing for something else. I am not soaking up what is in front of me now- the white snow, the serenity, the calm emptiness of this season. 

Last night it hit me. I woke up in the middle of the night and ventured downstairs to get a drink of water. I looked out at the deck to see that a dusting of snow had fallen. Wait a minute, the deck was covered with sparkling diamonds. I knew it was supposed to snow last night. Why was it sparkling? I looked up at the sky to see the bright moon shining on the newly fallen dusting of snow. I looked out at my yard and the entire yard was sparkling. It was then that I truly appreciated the gifts of this season. 
It took a mere three days for my witch hazel to fully open. The first time I stuck my nose in the flowers and smelled that familiar spicy scent I was in heaven. Can the flower show be far behind?

I awoke this morning and sat at my computer and watched the hungry birds feeding. I took photos of all of my houseplants and forced branches that are making my home a cozy little patch of paradise. I thought about the next three days stretching ahead of me, long, luxurious, and perfectly suited for writing, designing, and being creative without the pressure of the busy season bearing down on me. I get it.
My friend Lucy gave me a double Hibiscus plant that she propagated. I is so pretty!

Last year Fran, from the African Violet Society, gave me a rooted leaf of this gorgeous African violet. He should see it today. I now love to grow them, as my mother did before me.

Lucy also rooted a cutting of sweet olive, Osmanthus fragrans, for me. This teeny tiny white flower has the most powerful fragrance.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

How Hellebores Happen

Day 254
The Daily DuBrule

A week ago my Hellebores were trying to flower. It had been a warm December and a few types were cruising along nicely, budding up, and starting to swell. Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, is so named because in England and other warmer climates it is usually in bloom on Christmas day. I have seen that happen twice in CT, and I thought this year was going to be the third time. The buds on this species emerge from the center of the crown, right at ground level. If you check your Helleborus niger plants in late November, you will usually spot them, as in the photo above. 

Helleborus niger in bloom with snowdrops
The week of Christmas, it started to get really cold. I decided I would rather wait to see the flowers than to find them frozen in the morning so I created a loose tent of cut evergreen boughs and covered my plants. Now, almost a foot of snow has fallen and I imagine these buds are safely waiting under their blanket for warmer days to come. If the snow cover lasts, we may not see our Christmas roses bloom until late February. 


Hellborus foetidus is called bear's paw hellbore because of the distinctive pattern of its leaves. Another common name is "stinking hellebore" because if you smell the leaves or the flowers, they have a pungent aroma. This species buds up completely differently than Helleborus niger. The buds form on upright stalks; they are formed in late summer and are held above the totally evergreen foliage as fall winds down. They open in early winter, often blooming through the top of the snow, even if the leaves are buried. The flowers on this species are chartreuse green with burgundy edges. It is not the showiest flower by any means, but its early, and an oddity. I actually grow this plant primarily for the leaves. I have had bear's paw Hellebores in my dry shade garden for over 20 years. I have found that the best way to assure their longevity is to let the flowers from the previous winter remain on the plant and go to seed. Then, once you have spotted dozens of baby seedlings in the garden, cut the seed stalk to the ground. Usually, at that point, the mother plant dies, but there are so many babies everywhere that you will never be without this plant. Sounds like a familiar life cycle? Actually, now that I think about it, I treat my Helleborus foetidus as biennials. It works for me. 

Helleborus orientalis and all of its many relatives they we now call Helleborus x hybridus (the breeding work lately has created a very mixed up Hellebore world) set up their buds in a very similar manner to Helleborus niger but they tend to wait a while to form. When they do, usually in late winter, they arise upward from the crown of the plant on long stems. 
Although their leathery leaves are quite green and attractive when they head into the winter, by March when they begin flowering, the leaves have usually become brown and unsightly. The photo above illustrates deadleafing, removal of last year's leaves as this year's flowers are forming. If you can get to this chore before the flower stems get too tall, it goes a lot quicker. 
Helleborus x 'Candy Love' buds erupting from the center of the plant in late March.
No matter what kind of Hellebores you grow or hope to grow, they do provide a fascinating study in the colder months when the rest of your beloved perennials are dormant. Each year brings a different set of weather conditions. As gardeners, we should monitor how the buds are forming, protect them if it is extremely cold and there is no snow cover, and enjoy the promise of spring that the sight of their buds gives us each time we venture outdoors to say hello.