Posts Tagged Prunus mume

Blooming Today

Now that winters here in central North Carolina no longer even try to remain cold for more than a few days at a time, something in my yard blooms every month of the year. Most of the plants currently blooming are not native to my region; they are non-invasive ornamentals I planted years ago, and they do all attract pollinating insects on days warm enough for them to fly. Here are a few photos of what I saw as I walked our five acres this morning. Note that you can click on any photo to see a larger image.

Flowering Apricots (Prunus mume)

Both of my trees are struggling with a fungus that will likely kill them in a few more years. The beauty and fragrance of their flowers is intoxicating on a chilly winter day. The local honeybees always visit when the weather is warm enough for them to fly. I’ve forgotten the name of the pale pink-flowered cultivar, but the deep rose-colored bloomer was sold to me as cultivar Peggy Clarke, although there appears to be some debate about that.


These non-natives are so poisonous that the deer do not even nibble them. Mine are spreading, and I am currently attempting to eliminate them from the landscape, because they migrating into the area where a substantial natural population of bloodroots flourishes.

January Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)

This early bloomer is often mistaken for forsythia, which actually blooms almost a month later in my yard. Despite the name, it has no fragrance, but it is not invasive, pollinators visit the blooms, and the cheery flower color brightens cloudy winter days.


These two are smaller species that bloom before the bigger ones usually seen. The cottontail rabbits always devour them shortly after their buds appear, unless I spray the plants with a deterrent.

Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)

This non-native tree has spectacular exfoliating bark and golden autumn leaf color that stops all visitors in their tracks. It is in the witch hazel family; its inconspicuous flowers are tiny, but pretty when viewed closely. On warm days, honeybees visit the tiny flowers.

Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas)

I planted this non-native dogwood-family member because its bright yellow flowers appear very early, and because its fruits are supposed to be favored by wildlife. Unfortunately, my plants never set fruit. It has been suggested that I need another one that is not genetically related to the two I’ve got. I’m mulling on that. Meanwhile, the small bright yellow flowers undeniably light up the winter landscape.

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)

This beloved herb has flourished for years nestled among large boulders in a front garden. Not native, of course, but it seasons many of Wonder Spouse’s culinary masterpieces. It blooms off and on all year, but always produces an initial burst of blue flowers in late winter.

Ozark Witch Hazel (Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst’)

This beauty is technically native to the Ozarks west of here, but for me that’s plenty native enough for here. You cannot argue with its abundant knockout-gorgeous purplish strappy flowers, and its fall leaf color is also quite spectacular. The strong, clean fragrance of the flowers carried by a chilly late winter wind lifts my spirits every time I catch a whiff.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

Although technically not quite yet in bloom, these swelling flower buds point to an imminent explosion of red flowers within the next few weeks. I believe their arrival is the first true sign that spring approaches. Even before these native trees start, the local elm species (Ulmus spp.) open their inconspicuous flowers to unleash their pollen on winter winds. They started doing that here yesterday. I know, because my allergies went crazy as soon as I stepped out the door yesterday and today. I must now pack tissues for every walk around the yard.

Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)

Fruiting bodies, not flowers, I know, but these beauties stopped me in my tracks on this morning’s walkabout. My friend with fungus knowledge assures me that these are edible oyster mushrooms, but we’ll likely leave them for local wildlife to enjoy. They are growing at the base of a fungus-killed tulip poplar. Fun fact I learned when I researched this mushroom: it is carnivorous. Its mycelia kill and digest nematodes, likely as a way to obtain nitrogen.

The weather seers are calling for cold rain for most of the next two weeks. Today’s blossoms will likely turn to watery mush. However, more blooms are imminent. Some will be late flowers on the above plants, but many more flowers of other plants will appear before long.

During breaks in the weather, my friend and garden helper, Beth, and I — sometimes with the additional aid of Wonder Spouse — are attempting to clean up overgrown sections of the yard. The task is eternal, especially because it is constantly slowed by unanticipated discoveries — new plants in unexpected places, sleeping frogs, friendly Ruby-crowned Kinglets curious about what we’re doing.

It is those surprises that prevent the work from becoming drudgery, and they help this aging gardener hold on to the child-like sense of wonder that gets me out of bed every morning in time to catch the day’s sunrise.

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Spring Fever?

I ordered my seeds — well, most of them anyway — before Christmas. I sowed the first of them in the germination container in my greenhouse on January 21, because some plants require a longish period of growth before they are ready to bloom, or in the case of herbs, to reach a transplantable size. I blame pandemic isolation for the relatively large number of seeds I ordered this year. Also, Seeds ‘n Such, from which I ordered most of my seeds, charges a lower price per packet when you order more packets — a deal too tempting to ignore for this plant-lover. This company also provides fewer seeds per packet for most of their seeds, which allows them to reduce their per-packet cost, and limits the number of seeds that don’t get planted for lack of space.

The feeder for summer-visiting hummingbirds is just a few feet from where I hope to have a hanging basket of red petunias they will also enjoy.

Most years, I try a few new annual flower varieties. These non-native, showy summer blooms line a front walkway to my house, fill a hanging basket by the front door, and mingle with the vegetables to attract pollinators and provide fresh flowers for bouquets. For the hanging basket, I decided to try a petunia from the Hybrid Wave Series. You’ve probably seen these prolific bloomers in nursery centers. I could not resist trying a variety called Carmine Velour, which is described as being “stunning, non-fading, intense and bright, even when cloudy.” I’m hoping that the Ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit a feeder just across from the flower basket will approve of these deep red beauties. My packet only contained five pelleted petunia seeds, because this fancy hybrid is quite particular about its germination requirements. The instructions told me to allow a lot of time for germination and for the plants to grow to transplantable size. Finally today, 8 days after planting, one tiny seedling has emerged. Eight days isn’t really that long for a number of species to germinate, but because I’ve never tried this variety before, I confess I was getting a tad nervous. I’m hopeful that the other four seedlings will pop up any minute, especially because the next few days are supposed to be sunny, and these seeds require bright light to germinate well. I’ve got my fingers crossed that these prima donnas fulfill my expectations.

First to germinate for me was another new flower — a Gazania hybrid mix called New Day. These bright annuals should add some nice color to my front walk. They are purported to bloom well through summer heat and drought. Time will tell. Fourteen of the fifteen seeds in the packet germinated in 3-4 days. I approve of their enthusiasm!

I’m hoping creeping herbs like thymes and oregano will appreciate the heat of the rock wall that contains this flower bed.

I also decided to try growing some perennial herbs from seed. North Carolina summer humidity and heat are very hard on thymes and other Mediterranean herbs. I don’t usually manage to keep most of them alive for more than a couple of years. I rationalized that seeds are cheaper than plants, so I could try again. Plus, I’ve got a nice, hot, well-drained spot where the thyme, oregano, and marjoram can dangle over the rock border of the Furlough Wall of the bed Wonder Spouse built a few years ago. Tiny Sweet Marjoram and German Winter Thyme seedlings began popping up 5 days after planting. The flat-leaf parsley — a notoriously slow germinator — is still meditating on germination. The Cleopatra oregano is also still a no-show. Both could easily take another week or more before germinating, especially with the rounds of cold, wintry weather visiting my area every few days.

The almost-full moon last night before clouds obscured its rise above the trees.

Maybe it is tonight’s full moon. Perhaps it is the fact that the sun has begun to set later in the afternoon again, or that I heard the familiar shriek of a female Wood Duck earlier this week for the first time this year. Maybe it’s because my witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ is beginning to push out magenta petals and the Prunus mume trees are opening their first fragrant flowers, providing aroma therapy of the highest quality, but I have the distinct feeling that spring will arrive early this year. Just this week, the Northern Cardinals have begun singing. And for about a half hour on the one day this week that afternoon temperatures reached the upper 50s, a few Southern Chorus Frogs celebrated the break in the cold weather.

This morning’s “snow.”

OK, technically speaking, it snowed overnight last night, but it was such a pitiful effort that all evidence of it had disappeared by noon. And yes, the weather seers are threatening my area with freezing rain in a few days, but they are promising it will turn over to mere rain before the ice can create problems. It’s as if Winter’s heart just isn’t in the game anymore — at least not in central North Carolina where I live. I’ve lived in this state for all but the first year and a half of my life, and I’m old enough to remember March snows and springs that didn’t really begin until April. But climate change has erased those days for the foreseeable future. I have mixed feelings about Winter’s shortened duration, but I know the native wildlife that share our five acres would appreciate an early spring.


A hungry Red-shouldered hawk has taken to parking itself atop my bird feeders, no doubt hoping a songbird will walk into its talons. The white-tailed deer linger under the feeders at dusk vacuuming up any seeds dropped by the birds. The wildlife cameras are routinely capturing videos of a thin coyote patrolling deer trails along the creek. All would welcome Spring’s abundance I am sure.

For now, I must quell my spring fever, content myself with cheerleading new seedlings in my greenhouse, and appreciating winter sunrises on recently rare clear-skied mornings. Soon enough, the deep quiet of Winter will give way to Spring symphonies.

January 19 sunrise

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Opening Acts

Glamor close-up of Witch Hazel 'Amethyst'

Witch Hazel ‘Amethyst’

Tomorrow, we’ll be done with January. For me, this has been simultaneously a very long and a very short month. I have been doing more writing for other venues this month, which has diverted me from efforts here. Despite the schedule uptick, I have found time to wander my yard long enough to photograph the new growing season’s opening acts. Natives like the witch hazel cultivar above are among the early bloomers, but the showier acts are mostly non-native ornamental trees and shrubs that I added precisely because of their early-flowering proclivities. More than ever, I am merciless in eradicating any non-natives that show signs of potential invasiveness, but the plants in this post have been with me for over a decade, and so far, so good.

January Jasmine flower buds

January Jasmine flower buds

I first met January Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) on the campus of Duke University, where its arching evergreen branches cascaded down a rock wall, its winter flowers a welcome surprise on a dull gray day. I never forgot it, and when we moved to our five-acre paradise, I found a spot for it in the first few years.


New flowers after an unseasonably warm rain.

From a distance, the botanically unsophisticated mistake this beauty for forsythia. But forsythia is a much coarser, larger plant, and it usually blooms at least a month later than January Jasmine.

The individual flowers are much more delicate-looking than those of forsythia -- at least in this gardener's opinion.

The individual flowers are much more delicate-looking than those of forsythia — at least in this gardener’s opinion.

Before the January Jasmine got started, my pale pink-flowering Flowering Apricot (Prunus mume) opened for business. During a recent warm spell, it was covered in ecstatic honeybees from my neighbor’s hive.

A week later, my other two Flowering Apricots opened. Theoretically, both are the cultivar Peggy Clarke, but as I wrote here, the flowers are not the same, regardless of the name tags that came with them. As I wrote then, I think of them as Peggy Senior and Peggy Junior, because I acquired Junior later, after falling madly in love with the fragrance of Peggy Senior. I know my enthusiasm sounds extravagant, but trust me, on a cold — or warm — winter’s day no matter how blue you might be feeling, a few deep inhalations of Peggy Senior’s cinnamon-sweet perfume will lift your heart and hopes.

Peggy Senior branches

Peggy Senior branches

This syrphid fly was quite a surprise. I've never seen them out so early.

This syrphid fly was quite a surprise. I’ve never seen them out so early.

I didn't realize it wasn't a honeybee until I looked at it through the camera lens.

I didn’t realize it wasn’t a honeybee until I looked at it through the camera lens.

Most of Peggy Senior's pollinator visitors have been my neighbor's honeybees.

Most of Peggy Senior’s pollinator visitors have been my neighbor’s honeybees.

Peggy Senior is sited behind the south-facing wall of our garage, so she always begins to bloom about a week before Peggy Junior.  For comparison, here are a couple of shots of Junior. The differences in their perfume are profound; although pleasantly sweet, Junior’s fragrance entirely lacks the cinnamon undertone that makes Senior so heavenly. Junior’s flowers are also a paler pink.

The Green World is my source of solace these days more than ever before. When faced with national and international events over which I have little control — at least until the next election cycle — I have chosen to devote my efforts to where I feel I can be most effective. That’s why I’m stepping up my writing efforts.

I’m writing a bi-monthly gardening column for a small paper in Virginia in the hopes that I can persuade new readers to more deeply appreciate their native environments. I also recently finished an article for the next edition of Conservation Gardener, the magazine of the NC Botanical Garden that I’m hoping will motivate folks to get serious about eradicating invasive non-native species from urban natural areas in their neighborhoods.

Expanding male catkins of native American Hazelnut (Corylus americana).

Expanding male catkins of native American Hazelnut (Corylus americana).

I’m also deeply involved in helping a local church create a wildlife sanctuary on their property by enhancing it with diverse, abundant native plants. My dream is that all such public places — now mostly “landscaped” with resource-hogging, environmentally sterile lawns and a few struggling, mostly non-native trees and shrubs — can become healthy native havens for struggling wildlife, including vital pollinators. I’m hoping this project will inspire other churches to start their own native sanctuaries, and that as adults and children become familiar with these plants, they will want to plant them in their home landscapes. It’s a big dream, I know, but with so much darkness in our world right now, I feel obliged to think big — and very green.

Moon, Jupiter, and Spica

Moon, Jupiter, and Spica

A couple of weeks ago before dawn, we got quite a show just as the moon began to make her descent. The bright light below and to the moon’s right is the planet Jupiter, shining brighter than most stars. If you look carefully toward the bottom of the shot, you can see a blurry bit of gray light. That’s Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.

This conformation of heavenly lights was a lovely opening act for the sunrise that followed shortly thereafter, and reminded me that there’s more than one meaning to that term. Opening acts can be preludes to main shows, but they can also be behaviors. In this time when political darkness threatens to overwhelm us, I am looking to my early flowers and spectacular sunrises as reminders to keep my heart open despite the palpable fear in the air.

Love wins.

Love wins.

The only way to fight darkness is with light, and light comes from loving, open hearts. So I resolve to do my best to keep my heart open through the dark days ahead, drawing strength from the Green World, and praying that sharing it as widely as I can will inspire others to do the same.

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Doubling Down

Pink-flowering ornamental apricot near maximum bloom.

Pink-flowering ornamental apricot near maximum bloom.

I am not a gambler. I don’t buy lottery tickets or spend money at casinos. I am not a gambler — except when I garden. As with any game of chance, all the variables involved in gardening cannot be controlled by humans. In truth, even the plants are gamblers. My lovely ornamental flowering apricots are prime examples. Ten days ago, they were barely blooming, but a slightly (and I do mean slightly) milder round of weather this week persuaded them to open fully for business, much to the delight of my neighbor’s honeybees, who were also out taking advantage of the relative warmth.

Prunus mume 'Peggy Clarke (Senior) is wafting her delightful cinnamon scent across half my yard.

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ (Senior) is wafting her delightful cinnamon scent across half my yard.

Prunus mume 'Peggy Clarke' (Junior) is also perfuming the air.

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ (Junior) is also perfuming the air.

When I realized my early-blooming gamblers were waking up, I made a quick trip around the yard a couple of days ago. Although the January Jasmine was still barely open, My Amethyst witch hazel was in full bloom.

You can't beat the color of Hamamelis vernalis 'Amethyst.'

You can’t beat the color of Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst.’

The Cornelian Cherries (Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’) are just cracking open their flower buds. I told them to hold off for at least another week. Betting on successful blooms this upcoming week is a sure way to lose.

Cornelian cherry buds showing peaks of yellow.

Cornelian cherry buds showing peeks of yellow.

All these early-blooming gamblers may pay for their enthusiasm this week. Winter has decided to slam us hard at least one more time before allowing Spring to take over. The weather seers haven’t quite made up their minds (divergent models) about the duration and depth of the cold — and the amount of frozen precipitation that may or may not come with it, but I feel certain that early flowers will mostly meet their demise this week.

The snowdrops will probably survive, unless ice piles on top of them.

The snowdrops will probably survive, unless ice piles on top of them.

I confess the impending forecast has me wondering if I’m being punished for my impudent suggestion in my previous post to defy Winter. Maybe yes, maybe no, but I was left wondering what I should do now. All the spring greens I sowed in the greenhouse two weeks ago are well up.  If we lose power, they will turn to green mush, along with all the potted plants I overwinter there.

Dill seedlings.

Dill seedlings.

Today’s mail brought my complimentary seed order from Renee’s  Garden. She offers garden writers a few seed packets in exchange for publicity about her wonderful offerings. I am happy to oblige, and you can find my accounts of previous seed trials if you search on the company name. Several of the varieties I ordered this year require a lengthy nurturing period in the greenhouse before they’ll be ready for transplanting into the garden. I pondered — should I sow them now, or wait a week until the arctic deep freeze abates?

Rooted rosemary cuttings in my greenhouse are blooming happily.

Rooted rosemary cuttings in my greenhouse are blooming happily.

What the heck, I figured, I might as well double down and go for broke. I sowed the new seeds in the greenhouse this afternoon, and I fed my vegetable seedlings with a dilute solution of fish emulsion/seaweed to encourage strong growth.

The new growth on my Louisiana irises are beating Winter but losing to hungry deer.

The new growth on my Louisiana irises is beating Winter but losing to hungry deer.

Go big or go home, I say — at least when it comes to gardening. I’ve got plenty of leftover seeds. If all is green mush in a week, I just begin again. Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.

February sunrises warm Winter's stark landscape. Soon enough, the sun will be too strong for him.

February sunrises warm Winter’s stark landscape. Soon enough, the sun will be too strong for him.



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Defying Winter

My pink-flowering Prunus mume

My pink-flowering Prunus mume

Is it just me, or has this already been the longest winter ever? Oh, sure, we get occasional very brief moments of temperatures in the upper 50s, but they’re usually accompanied by rain. And, yes, I know I’ve had it easy here in the southeastern Piedmont compared to those poor fools folks in New England currently buried under three feet of snow and counting.

Even so, my winter-blooming plants are way behind their normal schedules. The only one currently blooming respectably is the pink flowering apricot in the above photo. My two other apricots — Peggy Clarke Senior and Junior — are only just starting to try to open a few flowers here and there. Often by this time of year, the apricots have been blooming since late December. Ditto for my January Jasmine. If I scrutinize the flower buds, I can see one or two showing peeks of bright yellow, but no open blooms. They didn’t make their namesake blooming month at all this year. The hellebores are also way behind. I can’t even find any flower buds showing yet. The snowdrops are just pushing up out of the soil, and so on and so forth with all my early bloomers. It’s enough to discourage any gardener.

But for the last two days, suddenly my Northern Cardinals are singing again. Since autumn, they’ve been cheeping among themselves at the feeders, but now the bright scarlet males are perching in the treetops bragging about their good looks for all to hear. Their surge in hormonal harmonizing defies winter’s tenacious grip, and reminds me of the sun’s lengthening daily presence. So I decided to take my cue from them and start some vegetable seeds in my greenhouse yesterday during a “warm” spell.

Personally, I am eager for salad season. An array of fresh-picked spring greens lightly dressed and perhaps mixed with a few other veggies, some nuts or berries or cheese — I’m salivating just writing about it. This excitement annually grips me as I survey my seed catalogs, which probably explains the assortment of seed packets I pulled out yesterday.

Can't you just taste the salads?

Can’t you just taste the salads?

Yes, as usual, I’ve probably gone a bit overboard. But that’s why I’ve planted some of each of these in the greenhouse now. I want to prolong salad season as long as I can. You see, the problem with spring gardening in the southeastern Piedmont is that the optimal growing conditions for these veggies can be depressingly short. Sometimes the temperatures leap into the 80s in early April and never look back.

Freshly planted and nestled within the germination chamber.

Freshly planted and nestled within the germination chamber.

My plan is to grow the seedlings in the greenhouse until the nighttime temperatures stop regularly plunging into the teens. When that happens, I’ll transplant them into a garden bed, mulch them well, and cover them with a tent of the heaviest grade of spun garden fabric — the kind designed to protect plants from nighttime temperature drops. It’s a gamble, but the pay-off is totally worth it.

These seeds prefer cool soil temperatures.

These seeds prefer cool soil temperatures.

The lettuce seeds are tucked inside the germination chamber, where the propagation mat warms them from below to raise soil temperatures just enough to enhance germination rates. The spinaches, greens, and beets are sitting in flats on the greenhouse bench beside the germination chamber. They really prefer cooler soil temperatures, so that’s what they’re getting. I’ve never tried sowing beets indoors before, but the seed packet suggested it, and my germination rates from direct sowing have always been unpredictable, so I figured I’d try it this way. Of course, I’ll be sure to let you know the results of the experiment.

All seeds sowed, it's time to close up the greenhouse and let them work on their defiance of winter.

All seeds sowed, it’s time to close up the greenhouse and let them work on their defiance of winter.

I use fresh potting soil for germination operations, and I fill all the cells and water them thoroughly before I start planting. By moistening the soil before sowing, I don’t risk dislodging tiny lettuce and spinach seeds by adding water later. Lettuce seeds especially need to be just barely covered. The only way to achieve the control I want is to slide the seeds in place one at a time into the pre-moistened soil. The green fabric beneath the flats is capillary cloth; this greenhouse staple holds excess water which can be pulled up by the seedlings as they need it. It allows me to maintain more consistent growing conditions inside my little greenhouse.

Sweet dreams, salads to come!

Sweet dreams, salads to come!

The top on the heated germination chamber ensures optimal humidity and warmth for encouraging seedlings to emerge. As soon as they do, I’ll move them to a bench. The enclosed chamber is too humid to keep growing plants happy. Plus, I’ll need the space for the next round of seeds I’ll be planting in a week or two.

Today, the winds are howling again, and nighttime temperatures are predicted to be in the low 20s, which translates to the mid-teens at my house. I confess I feel a bit less frustrated with winter’s tenacity, now that I’ve started my own spring revolution in my greenhouse. I encourage all my fellow Piedmont gardeners to join me in this rebellion.

Let's band together in defiance of winter's tyranny!

Let’s band together in defiance of winter’s tyranny!

NOTE: For those interested in the germination success of the seeds I planted, I’m providing a running account on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. Scroll up and click on the handy link on the right side of this page to get there.

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Blooming Today

A driveway dandelion

A driveway dandelion

One of the advantages of living in the Piedmont region of NC — most years, at least — is that it is possible to have blooming plants in your landscape every month of the year. To do it, you have to sneak in some well-behaved non-native beauties, but I think it’s worth it for year-round blooms.

Granted, most gardeners aren’t too fond of that little weed above. But I’ve always liked dandelions. These non-native naturalized weeds were brought to North America by early colonists. It was considered an essential medicinal plant, and is still consumed in tonics, wines, and salads by many people. In fact, you can find horticulturally improved dandelion seeds in the greens section of many seed catalogs.

In my yard, the dandelions seem to prefer our gravel driveway. I know most folks would eradicate them, but I love their cheerful yellow faces on gloomy winter days. And if it’s warm enough for the honeybees to fly, you’ll find them swarming every yellow lion they see.

Most of the flowers blooming today are non-native trees and shrubs, all but one of which I added to our landscape. I apologize for the less-than-stellar photos. My camera objected to the limited light offered by today’s mostly cloudy skies.

Pink Prunus mume

Pink Prunus mume

As has been the case in recent years, the pink-flowering ornamental apricot (Prunus mume) variety has begun to bloom before Peggy Clarke. For better pictures of this variety, try here.

January Jasmine

January Jasmine

Right on schedule, the January Jasmine began blooming last week. Judging by the number of still-unopened flower buds, it should be brightening the landscape through January.

The January Jasmine usually blooms several months before forsythias start, but not this year. Our November was deeply cold, but our December was visited by several very warm bouts of weather. I think this may have prompted the forsythia thicket that grows along my road front to open a few flowers ahead of schedule.

A few precocious forsythia flowers

A few precocious forsythia flowers

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clark’ isn’t quite open yet, but many of the buds on both my trees are showing hints of rose pink.

Peggy Clark about to burst into gorgeousness

Peggy Clark about to burst into gorgeousness

And finally, one named variety of a native tree species that I recently added to my landscape is just beginning to bloom. Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst’ has partially opened a set of flower buds closest to the ground, where I suspect temperatures are just slightly warmer. I added this variety of witch hazel specifically for its winter blooms. The strappy purple flowers should be dangling in clusters from all the branches very soon.

The ground was too muddy to kneel down for a fragrance check.

The ground was too muddy to kneel down for a fragrance check.

One other native currently has two sets of flower buds that may manage to open before the next round of deeply cold weather. The coral honeysuckle vine growing on the trellis along my front walk, though mostly devoid of leaves, is sporting crimson flower buds.

Such floral enthusiasm is welcome in my mostly drab winter landscape. Every bloom reminds me of life’s persistent resilience, promising Spring’s imminent return.

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December Flowers

Flowering Apricot perfumes winter breezes.

A flowering apricot perfumes winter breezes.

One of the many advantages of gardening in the southeastern Piedmont region of the United States is the relatively mild climate. We get our share of mornings in the teens and twenties in winter to be sure, but the soil rarely freezes, and certainly not for long. By choosing the right plant for the right spot, gardeners in my region really can have blooms in their yards every month of the year.

Both of my just-beginning-to-bloom plants are not native to my region. These ornamentals come from Asia, but neither has ever demonstrated any invasive tendencies. I confess I’ve forgotten the cultivar name of the flowering apricot (Prunus mume) in the top photo. Despite benign neglect on my part, it has thrived for over a decade beneath a canopy of mature loblolly pines. Its fragrance is pleasantly sweet, without the undertones of cinnamon that characterize my other P. mume (Peggy Clarke).

The show looks likely to linger quite a while.

The show looks likely to linger quite a while.

This small tree is sited near my driveway, where I must pass it to retrieve my mail. It began blooming two weeks ago, and I’ve been making a point of stopping on my way up and back from the mailbox to deeply inhale the scent of these delicate-looking flowers. By the number of buds still present, I predict I have at least a month more of flowers from this tree.

January Jasmine beginning to bloom a few weeks early.

January Jasmine beginning to bloom a few weeks early.

Also just starting to bloom: January Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). I first fell in love with this sprawling yellow-flowering low shrub when I saw it draped artfully over a rock wall at a local college campus.  The stems are evergreen, but they must not be tasty, because my neighborhood deer have always ignored my specimen despite easy access.

Some folks mistake this shrub in bloom for our ubiquitous forsythias, because the arching branch growth pattern is similar, and the flowers — from a distance — resemble this more common ornamental. But no forsythia I know blooms in December or January, and most years, not even late February. If you live in the Piedmont and see a yellow-blooming shrub with arching branches this time of year, odds are it is January Jasmine.

This shrub will be covered in sunny flowers in another week -- if ice stays away.

This shrub will be covered in sunny flowers in another week — if ice stays away.

January Jasmine needs room to sprawl. Rock walls make excellent supports and also provide a warmer microclimate as the rocks hold on to the heat from weak winter sunshine. I had no convenient rock wall, so I let my shrub form a natural mound that had widened over the twenty years since I planted it. Last year, Wonder Spouse and I severely pruned it back to prevent it from crowding out the daffodils planted near it. This indestructible plant responded by blooming more vigorously than it has in recent years. It will peak in another week or so, as we enter its namesake month. The bright yellow flowers offer no scent, but the flowering apricots more than compensate for that in my yard.

Coming attractions...

Coming attractions…

Last but never least, my other flowering apricot cultivar, P. mume ‘Peggy ‘Clarke,’ will be bursting into rosy-petaled, cinnamon-scented glory any minute now. It always opens a week or two after the pink one, even though both of my Peggy’s are sited in warmer microclimates. I know they are worth the wait, and you do too, if you’ve read my earlier entries here and here.

I read a disheartening article today about the latest gardening trends noted by the horticulture industry in the United States. According to their research, younger generations confine their gardening efforts to a few pots on their patios, having no interest in doing anything more than “mowing and blowing” the rest of their yards.

I hope this isn’t really true. You can’t grow flowering apricots or January Jasmine in pots on your patio. But I promise you, the winter flowers they give you in exchange for a few hours a year of work are worth every drop of sweat and sore muscle accrued on their behalf.

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A Cultivar Conundrum

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ (senior)

I got myself in trouble with a reader a few years back when I wrote about Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ in an article for a local newspaper about late winter/early spring bloomers. I based the description in my article on my personal experience with the cultivar — a tree currently producing the gorgeous flowers in the above photo. I wrote about how much I love the fragrance of Peggy’s flowers in an earlier blog entry here.

I happen to think the color of Peggy’s flowers is quite lovely. Most of the P. mume cultivars I see have much more pastel-colored flowers. My Peggy’s flowers are a rich, deep rosy pink — a real eye-catcher in the winter landscape.

But as I’ve mentioned before, it’s the fragrance of Peggy’s flowers that completely captivates me. Instead of the lightly sweet fragrance characteristic of most flowering apricot cultivars, my Peggy’s flowers smell strongly of sweet cinnamon. As I’ve written before, if I could figure out how to preserve and bottle that fragrance, I would be delighted beyond words.

And that’s how I got in trouble with that reader I mentioned. My enthusiastic prose describing my Peggy’s many wonderful attributes persuaded her to go out and buy the same cultivar to plant in her yard.  When her young tree bloomed, I heard from her. The nursery she bought her specimen from insisted that it was indeed P. mume ‘Peggy Clarke,’ but her Peggy’s flowers were not the same color as my Peggy’s flowers — and worse, neither was the fragrance.  Not a hint of a cinnamon undertone wafted from her Peggy’s flowers. She wrote, demanding an explanation from me. I didn’t have one, so I conducted an experiment, of sorts.

Blooming branches of Peggy Senior

I bought three different P. mume cultivars when they first became available about 18 years ago from a local nurseryman who specializes in choice plants from Asia. A double-flowered white bloomer didn’t last more than a couple of years. Its fragrance was nice, but the tree didn’t bowl me over, and it clearly didn’t appreciate the site where I planted it. I do not remember its cultivar name.

The single-flowered pastel pink cultivar that I showed you here is still with us, blooming reliably every year, and emitting a light, sweet fragrance that is pleasant, but often so faint that I must stick my nose right in a flower to get a good whiff of it (note — check for honey bees before trying this maneuver).

The third cultivar I bought was P. mume ‘Peggy Clarke.’ I never forgot her name because she is such an exquisitely memorable tree when her flowers perfume the late winter air of my landscape. No kidding, I stop by this tree every day — rain or shine — when she’s blooming, for a bit of aromatherapy, inhaling the cinnamon goodness of her flowers. Peggy’s fragrance never fails to brighten my mood, no matter how dreary the day.

When my reader accosted me regarding her disappointment in buying a paler pink Peggy Clarke with no cinnamon note to its fragrance, I decided to buy another Peggy Clarke. I wondered if perhaps over the course of almost two decades that this cultivar had somehow changed. I think perhaps it has.

My original source for flowering apricots no longer sold Peggy Clarke, so I opted to buy from another source — a mail-order firm that had a good reputation. The tree that arrived was healthy, well-shaped, and certainly looked like a P. mume. Peggy Junior, as I call her, bloomed sparsely for us the second year, but it was enough to confirm what my reader had found. Peggy Junior was a pale imitation of Peggy Senior; her flowers were similarly shaped, but a much lighter shade — more of a carnation pink than a deep rose, as you can see in this close-up of Peggy Junior’s blooms this year:

Peggy Junior’s paler pink flowers

She’s pretty, I’ll grant you, but if you scroll to the top photo of Peggy Senior, you can’t miss the difference in color. Peggy Junior’s fragrance is also a disappointment. She is sweet, but there is no cinnamon magic in her perfume. She smells like my pale pink single-flowered cultivar — nice, but not intoxicating.

Peggy Junior’s flowering branches don’t have the same visual impact in the landscape. The paler color of her flowers tends to disappear on gray winter days. Here’s a shot of her blooming branches so you can compare it to the previous one of Peggy Senior’s branches:

Peggy Junior’s paler pink flowers lack the pizzazz of Peggy Senior’s flowers

I spent some time trying to find a reason for this significant difference in what is supposed to be the same cultivar. I can’t find a reference anywhere that discusses variation in color and fragrance within the same cultivar of P. mume. Thus, I can only guess at why my Peggy Senior dominates my winter landscape with cinnamon scent and rosy color while my Peggy Junior (four years in our yard now) does not.

Guess One: Through an incredible stroke of good fortune, I got a unique specimen unlike all the other Peggy Clarke’s known to the horticulture industry.

Guess Two: As the popularity of flowering apricots among homeowners exploded, the horticulture industry cut corners to generate sufficient stock to keep up with demand. In so doing, cultivar characteristics were compromised.

I have no proof to back either hypothesis. But I am grateful that my obsession with extraordinary plants led me to acquire my original Peggy Clarke when she first appeared in the trade. Be assured that if I decide my landscape needs another Peggy Clarke, I’ll be rooting cuttings from Peggy Senior to ensure I retain this captivating cultivar that perfumes and brightens my winters.



Monochromatic Sunrise

A December Surprise

I am an early riser. As day length shortens with the approach of Winter Solstice, my early bird nature is often rewarded with breathtaking sunrises, like the one I wrote about here. However, today did not bring fire to my eastern horizon.

Today as diamond stars faded into a pre-dawn pearly sky, a pale lavender herd of fluffy cloud sheep galloped toward me from the south. A solid wall of steely clouds loomed close behind them. As the sheep fled northeast before the approaching cloud bank, the eastern horizon showed hints of promising pink and pale gold. The race was on: clouds vs. sunrise.

The cloud sheep multiplied, their color deepening to lilac as the sky behind them darkened. Where the sun usually first appears, hints of tangerine promised warmth. Just as I expected to see the first golden rays, the sheep fled, replaced by a sobering wall of gray nothingness. No sunrise for me today.

A flat gray sky rules the morning; steel trees silhouetted against it reinforce the monochrome landscape. But Nature has not surrendered to the gloom. Sharp-leaved hollies glow greenly, their crimson berries brightening the dull air.

Hollies fight the monochrome

And then there are the flowers.

The weather here has been so inconsistently cold that many of my plants have been fooled into precocious blooming. Some summertime flowers have still refused to retire for the season: Sweet Alyssum and Verbena ‘Homestead.’ My loropetalums are blooming sporadically, as you can see here:

Fooled by late autumn warmth

And, as the flower opening this entry shows, one of my flowering apricots has been in full bloom for a week now. I confess, I don’t remember the name of the variety. Its perfume does not share Peggy Clark’s signature cinnamon scent. But it is still lovely – sweet, but not cloyingly so. I have never, ever, seen it bloom in December. Sometimes by late January, but never early December.

Peggy Clark has always bloomed first. Her location next to the garage gives her a flowering advantage. And her buds are close to opening. I’m guessing Peggy will be perfuming my yard by midweek. However, this season, this pale pink Prunus mume wins the race. I’m going to cut a few branches to bring indoors before the next cold snap threatens. She has earned a place of honor for her sweet blossoms.

But today I’ll enjoy all my December flowers where they grow, and appreciate their colorful punctuation of a monochrome near-winter landscape.

Too soon for slumbering honeybees


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Curing the winter blahs

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’

Meet Peggy Clarke. She is not native to the southeastern piedmont region, but she and her Asian kin — the ornamental flowering apricots (Prunus mume) — don’t appear to invade natural areas, so she is welcome in my yard. In fact, she is more than welcome.

I am hopelessly captivated by the cinnamon-sweet fragrance of her blossoms. The double rose-colored flowers are quite striking as they adorn bare branches in late winter/early spring. But it’s the fragrance that I would bottle if I could figure out how to do it.

You can find many cultivars of P. mume readily available locally and in nursery catalogs, and they all are lovely. But the only one I’ve found with the intoxicating fragrance of cinnamon sugar is Peggy Clarke.

We planted this small tree about fifteen years ago, and it has bloomed as early as December for us, depending on weather patterns. This year, her buds are only now beginning to swell, and I’m hoping that the warmer temperatures promised for the weekend will coax her into showing herself, so that winter breezes can waft her perfume across the landscape.

I’m not the only one eagerly waiting Peggy’s return. The local honeybees can’t get enough of her flowers. If it’s warm enough for Peggy to be open for business, it is warm enough for winter-starved honeybees to zero in on this early food source. The little tree hums with activity on warm winter days.

All that bee activity does produce fruit set, but the small fruits are not supposed to taste good to people (I’ve never tried one). The local squirrels, on the other hand, find them tasty.

The horticulturalists at North Carolina State University have a great Web site full of Fact Sheets about many horticultural plants, including Prunus mume. Read about it here.

This tree isn’t the only fragrant winter-blooming plant that will perfume your piedmont garden. But P. mume ‘Peggy Clarke’ will likely always be my favorite.

We recently needed to prune our mature tree (we have a younger one too) , even though this isn’t an optimal time for it, because the flower buds are already set. We brought the branches inside and put them in water.  Our warm house quickly persuaded Peggy to perfume our home — a preview of outdoor treats to come.

Twice the aroma therapy for the price of one plant — that’s what I call a sure cure for the winter blahs.

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