Chilly air, sweetly scented

Plants: Flowering shrubs' fragrance and color fend off winter blahs.

In The Garden

January 07, 2001|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Some days, I appreciate the muted scents and hues of winter, and the subtle beauty of bare branches etched against the sky. I really do. But other days, when spring seems years away and everything smells like rusted sheet metal, I get impatient. I want color. And fragrance. And I want it now!

Fortunately, Mother Nature offers some instant gratification for the seasonally challenged -- trees and shrubs that bloom in the dead of winter, oases of hope in a sea of monochrome.

Winter bloomers "are like an early invitation to the new year," says garden designer Monika Burwell, owner of Earthly Pursuits in Baltimore. "They get you into the spirit of spring."

Winterblooming wonders

Cornelian cherry dogwood, wintersweet, winter-flowering jasmine, winter daphne, white forsythia, winter hazel and witch hazel all add color and fragrance to the desolate winter landscape. Actually, witch hazel (Hama-melis) begins blooming around Thanksgiving just when the fall foliage is done. A shrubby tree that grows from a single scion (trunk), the witch hazel is decked out in bloom, depending on the variety, from November to March. Horizontal branches sprout sweetly fragrant flowers called inflorescences -- more plume than blossom -- that can range from brilliant yellow ("Arnold's promise"), through fiery, orange ("Jelena") to bronze ("Diana").

"There is a native variety, Hamamelis virginicus, that blooms in November," says Kurt Bluemel, of Baltimore landscape design firm and nursery, Kurt Bluemel Inc. "If you slow down driving in the autumn forest, you will see the difference between the yellow flowers and the yellow leaves. As soon as the leaves fall off, you see lots of witch hazel [blossoms] in the woods. Once the native witch hazel finishes, then the European ones start to bloom. The Chinese varieties bloom last -- in February to March."

Winter hazel, (Corylopsis), a fragrant near cousin to witch hazel, blooms in late February to March in Maryland. Dusted with snow, the blossoms are like natural lights against a drab background. Introduced from Japan in 1862, it is now available in several varieties, including the dwarf "March Jewel," spiked winter hazel (C. spicata), a larger variety with variegated leaves and very little scent that is good in woodland settings, and buttercup winter hazel (C. pauciflora).

"My absolute favorite is buttercup," says Burwell. "It's beautiful, very delicate looking with fragrant yellow flowers that look like tassels. It's good for small gardens as it grows slowly and usually only gets 4 feet or 5 feet high."

Another option is wintersweet (Chionanthus praecox), a strongly scented shrub that reaches a height of 8 feet to 10 feet. It's most stunning in late December, when its woody stems are lined with yellow flowers that look like sodden black-eyed Susans. Then, in late February to March, Cornelian cherry dogwood, (Cornus mas), the only true tree on this list, picks up the baton with clusters of golden-yellow flowers.

For those sick of yellow, try Abeliophyllum distichum, commonly called white forsythia. The shrub, similar in growth habit to yellow forsythia (which is actually a different species) has fragrant, starry white flowers that cluster along purplish whiplike (and slightly unruly) stems in late January to early February.

In addition, there are a couple of wonderfully scented shrubby climbers that can spill down slopes or over stumps. Winter-flowering jasmine (Jasmine nudiflorum) has bright yellow blooms starting in late November. Its spiky green stems look like Scotch broom (or Mel Gibson on a really bad hair day), but trained over walls, it's downright elegant.

"I covered a whole ugly wall with it," says Burwell. "It was like a golden waterfall."

Shrubby honeysuckle (Lonicera x purpusii) grows into a 5 foot to 7 foot bush and at the end of January has creamy white blossoms that echo the scent of summer varieties. Finally, there is winter daphne (Daphne odora). While daphne is beautiful with clutches of rosy-lavender flowers, like mini-lilac blooms that open over top green foliage in February, it can be a bit finicky. It likes alkaline soil and sometimes needs its own microclimate, since it doesn't like our hot summers, though the mezereum variety sold in this area is the least demanding.

Make sure they show

Most winter bloomers can be planted in either spring or fall, but the most important thing to remember is to plant them where they will be obvious in the winter. Pick a spot by the garage, en route to the garbage cans, or in a border that dies back for an unobstructed view of the winter-bloomer so you can enjoy them every day.

Also, make sure they won't compete for attention with something else. For example, Bluemel suggest you don't plant forsythia and winter hazel close together.

"Forsythia is more gaudy whereas winter hazel is delicate," he says. "You want to be able to see it."

SOURCES

Most garden centers will begin to carry winter-blooming plants in late winter / early spring.

Valley View Farms

11035 York Road

Cockeysville 21030

410-527-0700

Behnke Nurseries

11300 Baltimore Ave.

Beltsville 20705

301-937-1100

Homestead Gardens

743 W. Central Ave.

Davidsonville 21035

410-956-4777

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