Witch hazels, snowdrops and hellebores are essential to a garden.
It’s February, and we’ve hit those difficult weeks when winter has lost its charm, and the cold has yet to give any hint of giving way to spring. Gardeners are full of dreams and plans, and as the craving for flowers grows stronger, we threaten to do dangerous and extravagant things to satisfy our longings.
However, there’s a simple solution for the end-of-winter doldrums. Rather than leaving for the Florida coast or a Caribbean island, a wise gardener plants flowers that will bloom in late winter. It seems impossible that any flowers could grow or bloom when the mercury remains steadily in the 20s, but it is possible. There are three flowers in particular, which, in my opinion, no garden is complete without. These essentials are witch hazels, snowdrops and hellebores.
Witch hazels – Hamamelis – are a group of amiable, small trees that grow to 15 feet high and wide, and bedeck themselves in spidery blossoms throughout the coldest days of January and February. They grow slowly and prefer partial shade, two characteristics which make them highly suitable for suburban landscapes. Two of the most excellent witch hazels are ‘Arnold Promise’, a brilliant yellow that looks gorgeous against icy blue winter skies, and long-blooming ‘Jelena’, which produces rich buff-apricot blossoms. Witch hazels are somewhat difficult to propagate, which accounts for their scarcity, but they’re worth searching for.
Like witch hazels, the most difficult thing about snowdrops is finding plants for sale. Because they dry out easily in storage, snowdrops can be tricky to buy as dry bulbs. To get around this hurdle, choose Galanthus elwesii, a snowdrop that is native to Turkey and is naturally tolerant of drying out. It will only reach 6 inches tall, at the most, but despite its size, this little woodlander bears lovely blooms. Imagine a pearl teardrop earring accented with delicate outlines of green, and you have a pretty good impression of a snowdrop. Although snowdrops multiply heartily, it’s still a good idea to plant them in clumps and drifts. A single snowdrop looks forlorn, and they’re cheap enough that most of us can afford to plant lots of them.
It’s no surprise that hellebores are beginning to make their way into the midstream nursery business. What other perennial takes shade and drought, smothers weeds, requires no intensive care, blooms for three months, and is available in every color of the rainbow?
They take a few years to make impressive clumps, but such a magnificent plant is worth waiting for. The easiest hellebores to grow are the various forms known as Helleborus x hybridus. Most are grown from seed, so it’s best to buy plants in bloom, if you can find them.
A great deal of work has been done in Europe toward the development of single-color strains. The various “Lady” lines – such as ‘Yellow Lady’ and ‘Metallic Blue Lady’ – are now widely available throughout the United States. If you choose a “Lady,” you’ll at least know the general color of the plant. Hellebores are excellent performers in my dry woodland garden. They bloom on and on.
The nicest thing about these winter bloomers is that gardeners can easily create a tiered planting combining all of them. Find a shaded, rather sheltered spot and plant a witch hazel. Beneath it, plant hellebores, and between them, plant clusters of snowdrops.
After it’s established, this garden vignette will take no care at all, other than pruning and removal of dead leaves and flowers. Throughout the summer, it will be quietly green, but when January arrives, the witch hazel will bloom. A few days later, the snowdrops will bloom, and soon thereafter the hellebores will break into flower.
On frigid days, you will be able to look out the window and smile, while all your neighbors look out their windows and wonder when their tulips will finally begin to show their noses.
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