Mother Nature has been playing with us these past weeks, but no matter how she laughs as she keeps us off balance spring is coming. Crocuses, daffodils and sky blue scillas are laughing right back. Forsythia bushes are sunbursts of blossom.
Even some small trees are beginning to bloom. My neighbor Paul has a golden witch hazel in his garden. Hamamelis vernalis blooms early in the spring and is noted for that early bloom and twirly petaled flowers. There are many cultivars and I believe Paul’s is Hamamelis x intermedia Arnold’s Promise – a bright yellow hybrid that originated at the Arnold Arboretum. I planted Diane which is a bright coppery-red color because I have a daughter Diane. It came through its first winter, but the plant is so tiny that I am not sure it has come through this oddly mild winter.
Hamamelis virginiana is a witch hazel that blooms in the fall. With both varieties you can have a blooming tree at both ends of the season. Mohonk Red is cultivar with fat red blossoms. One of the delights of witch hazels is their sweet fragrance.
Witch hazels are not difficult to care for. They like sun but are not too fussy about soil although I think care taken in planting will always pay off in good plant survival. Keeping it properly watered through the first year, and probably even the second is also important. Witch hazels can be grown at the sunny edge of a woodland garden, and they are small enough, about 15 feet at maturity, that they can also be used at the back of a shrub border.
My neighbor Paul also has a yellow twig dogwood, Cornus sericea Flaviramea. The yellow green color of these branches is bright enough that Paul says it is the one thing that draws his eye in the winter. This shrubby dogwood (5 feet tall) is smaller that what is possibly the more familiar red twig dogwood. This is an excellent plant for wet areas because it needs consistent dampness. It does produce small white flowers, and then white fruits in the fall which are quickly eaten by the birds.
Amelanchier also known as shadblow (or Juneberry, Serviceberry and Bilberry) because it blooms at the same time that shad which are anadromus are leaving the salt water of the ocean to travel up river to spawn in fresh water. This small tree is covered with clouds of white flowers in late April and early May before the leaves are fully open. Fruits will appear in summer but are quickly eaten by the birds. This is an excellent small blooming tree for the edge of a woodland garden, and for those who want to attract birds. Unfortunately they are also attractive to deer. Keep that in mind.
Cercis or redbud is a beautiful small tree, with red buds and purple-pink flowers that bloom in May. I have not seen it much in the area and I don’t know why. Cercis canadensis, the eastern redbud, is hardy to zone 4 and can reach a height of 30 feet. Cercis chinensis, Chinese redbud, is smaller, reaching a height of 20 feet, but it is more tender, only hardy to zone 5. With the change in our winters perhaps we will be seeing more redbuds in the neighborhood.
Redbuds like sun but can take some shade. They will tolerate many soil conditions as long as they do not remain wet. It grows quickly which is a great benefit for those of us who tend to buy very small saplings.
I cannot talk about spring blooming trees without mentioning my own Sargent crabapple that grows in the center of the Sunken Garden. Its spread is about as wide as it is tall and a billow of white blushed with pink when it is in bloom. The soil is not very good there and quite wet in the spring, but it does get full sun. This small tree packs a lot of beauty and drama with no effort at all. It grows vigorously and tolerates heavy pruning. Whenever the saw is sharp.
Finally I want to mention Prunus Hally Jolivette a small cherry tree developed by Karl Sax, director of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University from 1946 to 1954, who named it after his wife. The late gardener, designer, and writer Wayne Winterrowd who lived in Readsboro called Hally Jolivette the best of the flowering cherries. “When fully open, each individual flower is about an inch and a quarter across, dangling downward on a slender petiole, and composed of a double row of fragile-seeming, frilly petals tinted almost white at their edges, but deepening down in the center of the flower through pink to a rich wine red,” he said. The tree is not only filled with blossoms, it remains in bloom for as much as 20 days which is a long time for a flowering cherry.
I first saw this lovely tree in my neighbor Paul’s garden, and was delighted to see it again on the Smith College campus earlier this week. It is not a demanding plant asking only a sunny location and reasonable garden soil to thrive and bloom.
As we think about our spring plant buying expeditions, think about adding one or two that can add early spring bloom to our gardens. This is the time of year we are hungry for color and eager to know a new garden season is beginning.
Between the Rows March 31, 2012