Gardening: Glorious bulbs
Winter in the maritime Northwest offers real contrasts in weather. The past few weeks have brought the usual January concoction of cold rain, high winds in spots, and stacks of heavy wet snow piling up on top of the landscape and under car wheels.
Even with occasional wintry blasts, the climate west of the Cascade Mountains is generally mild enough to allow us to experience flowers in mid-winter from bulbs and shrubs chosen for their winter interest.
Hardy bulbs, planted in early September or October, begin to emerge with flowers during winter's moderate temperatures. Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, cheer the winter scene with crisp white bells, the interior petals marked in bright green. Many gardeners are familiar with photographs of snowdrops blooming with snow surrounding them.
Snowdrops appear in nurseries with other hardy bulbs for early fall planting. Along with the common snowdrop, nurseries may offer one or two others such as the larger Galanthus elwesii. If possible, don't let the small bulbs dry out once they're purchased. Plant immediately. The plant prefers to grow where it's not sun-baked in the summertime. A cool spot in light shade, with some summer watering, will help these small treasures spread.
The ideal way to acquire snowdrops is to move them "in the green," immediately after flowering. This method obviously requires knowing a gardener willing to share the bulbs. Simply lift the clump gently, divide, and replant the bulbs when they are in leaf. Mark the clumps before the leaves disappear, because the snowdrops vanish completely in mid-spring and it's all too easy to mistake the spot where they grew for an empty piece of ground. I use short bamboo stakes to mark the clumps.
Early crocuses will begin emerging by mid-January in mild years. The common small yellow crocus, Crocus chrysanthus or hybrids of it, blooms with snowdrops. These are nicknamed "snow crocuses" for their early garden appearance. Look for the 3-inch tall yellow hybrids named "Gypsy Girl" and "E.A. Bowles." There are others: "Cream Beauty," "Snow Bunting," and "Blue Pearl," with colors matching their names.
Crocus bulbs must be planted in well-drained, full sun locations. They don't need summer watering and are a good addition to drought-tolerant landscape plantings.
Later, larger crocuses don't bloom until late February or early March, with flowers about 6 inches tall on hybrids like "Remembrance" and "Pickwick." All crocus flowers make intriguing small flower arrangements; if picked in bud, they open promptly under a lamp. Bringing snow crocus into the house helps with appreciation of their sweet, subtle fragrance.
Winter garden fragrance also emanates from several winter-blooming shrubs. The scent of honey, sweet and penetrating, comes from sarcococca. Blooming from late December into February, this is an elegant shrub with small, deeply green and glossy leaves which stay green year-round. The flowers are insignificant to see, looking like tiny white tufts of fringe, but the fragrance is astonishing. A sprig in a vase can scent a room.
This valuable shrub, available in several different species of different heights, can grow well in deep shade. The flowers are followed by polished dark round persistent fruits. It's hard to imagine a winter garden without sarcocca--now if we could only think of a good nickname for the plant!
Other winter-bloomers also offer intriguing flowers and fragrance. The witchhazels, Hamamelis mollis and hybrids of Hammamelis intermedia, have good fall color in yellows and reds, then a period of rest before the emergence of flowers on bare branches. The flowers of witchhazel smell exotically spicy and resemble tiny silk tassels made of twisted thread. Flowers are yellowish or burgundy or deep orange. Flowers cover the branches so completely that the shrubs appear decorated. Many excellent hybrids are available: look for "Jelena" or "Diane."
Another wonderful flower scent is that of wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox. This deciduous shrub bears small pale cream flowers along the length of its bare branches, handing beneath the branches. The fragrance seems to me to be sweetness with a lemon tang. In my garden, it's been blooming since early December, and the snow didn't bother the flowers.
The queen of scents, in my opinion, is Daphne odora, an evergreen shrub with glossy oval leaves. The small pinkish flowers open in early February (in mild years) with an exquisite citrus-spice fragrance mix. This daphne can live in shade and doesn't take much summer attention while remaining handsome year-round.
The time and length of all these blooms is weather-dependent; in cold weather they subside, only to open again as the temperature warms.
Visit a nursery now to see--and smell--these plants. To visit a beautifully-designed winter garden, go to see the Witt Winter Garden at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle.