The leafless landscape seems dead, but dormancy is only a false death. In the 1/24 issue of the New York Times Michael Tortorello takes us on a wintry horticultural tour of gardens in New York City and learns that death is not what winter brings. I grant you, the activity he sees in Central Park and other places is rather different from the dormancy I can see in my frozen snowy landscape, but still, his guides make a point.
An important lesson is that it is not really the cold that makes trees and shrubs lose their leaves, it is drought. Plant respire through their foliage and lose a great percentage of their moisture through their leaves. If the ground is frozen there is no more water being taken in, so the leaves have to go.
Rhododendrons, broad leaved evergreens, do not lose their foliage, but you can see how the leaves curl to minimize moisture loss. These leaves are still performing some photosynthesis. It is the look of these droopy cigar-like leaves that made me dislike rhodies for a very long time. I don’t know why the wonderful spring flowers did not make as big an impression on me when I was a young non-gardener as the winter foliage.
While there is no chickweed or knotweed or mugwort sprouting in my neighborhood as there is in Central Park, a close look will show tiny green buds on the lilacs, and the buds on the rhododendrons are not hard to see at all.
Dormancy is not death. We are all just waiting. I am more impatient than the plants.
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I use my rhododendrons as winter thermometers. One variety has leaves that droop, like those in your photo; the other has leaves that curl up very tightly. On very cold sub-zero mornings, when the droopy ones look so pathetic, the tightly curling ones look like pine needles.