Random Thoughts of Spring

Color changes dramatically in plants, an obvious change is autumn foliage changes, but consider winter colors of sedums, saxifrages, bergenias and sempervivums, often very spectacular. Another consideration is the red growth on some trees and shrubs in the spring. These can be used to great advantage to show off blooms of another plant. Even the much maligned (in the Pacific Northwest) photinias!

I have read that the reason plants put out those dramatic red new leaves is to fool the predatory insect into thinking that it is dead. Apparently, many insects see red as black or dead…and pass on by rather than lay their eggs on something that is likely not to provide good vegetable lunches for the emerging larvae. On the one hand, I love learning things such as that. On the other hand, I am vaguely disquieted that it isn’t for MY enjoyment. We humans aren’t even a twinkle in the eye of that insect or anywhere in the periphery of that plant’s strategy. But, as they say, get over it and go out there and look around.

There is emergence in the air . There are the “snouts” of hostas and the ruffled petticoats of aquilegias tantalizing underfoot while overhead, the exquisite engineered buds of trees and shrubs are stretching and pushing their way into the new year. I am just struck dumb by the delicacy and precision of the buds on the Acer tegmentosum. Or the virtually antlered rhus branches….for all the world looking and feeling more animal than plant.

Acer tegmentosum buds

Though the pussy willows are distending, dusting their hairs with pollen (yellow on the gray pussies, dramatic red pollen on the black), the magnolia buds are still soft and will retain their fuzz until they burst into flower later this spring. The only magnolia in the garden currently bursting open its buds and showing an alluring bit of flower is “Wada’s Memory.” All the others are still being secretive and mum about the treasures they have to show.

Magnolia “Wada’s Memory”


There is such a pronounced switch in the seasons. Just as there is a day in September when you wake up in the morning and you know it’s fall…so it is in the spring: one day, you KNOW it’s spring. I was just reading a (rather silly—but archaically pleasant) book called: “Of Flowers and a Village” by Wilfred Blunt (1901-1987). The conceit is that a godfather is writing letters to a goddaughter during her convalescence in Scotland—mainly gossiping about his garden and the odd characters in his village. There are observations which redeem some small part of the time invested to read it. The one which comes to mind now is:

“This morning I woke to autumn—a warm autumn morning rather than the cool summer morning of yesterday. It’s like the difference between a fiddle and a ‘cello both playing middle C: the same note, but another quality.”

It’s something Mike and I comment on each year. TODAY it is autumn. TODAY it is spring. No matter that the temperatures are the same. This Sunday it turned to spring. Even though we have freezing temps this morning and a freakish snow on Saturday. Spring is most assuredly here, cold though it may be. With spring, however, comes the realization of how much work is out there to do…and also an assessment of the winter damage in the garden.

For those of your outside the Pacific Northwest area, we had (what we call) a hard winter. Now, by the standards of MOST of the continental USA, we live in a gardening paradise, but we are still assessing our damage in these parts. We had a spectacularly beautiful autumn last year…warm and colorful…70 degree days and 45 degree nights, just enough rain, but not too much—inspired me to put in an autumn photos button on our website.

Then, WHAMMO, in mid-December, we had a 16 degrees one night and it stayed FROZEN for well over a week. Wow! Hard on the people and the plants. Since then, we have had a record cold winter….and a pretty grim early spring. The hellebores are splendid and bulbs seem happy, but the hebes, eucalypts, loropetalums, pittosporums, and many other borderline plants may or may not have a future. We’ll have to see if it was root kill or just down to. I am sad about the eucalyptus trees. There is one with thin-willow-like leaves that looks pretty unlikely as well as the BEST scented one in our garden hasn’t a leaf on it.

Of course, though I may bemoan the losses right now, and swear that my days of “pushing the zone” are over: No more marginal plants. Yet, I KNOW, that next weekend when I go to the Rhododendron Species Garden sponsored plant sale, I will eye those eucalyptus, and think, maybe we should give hoheria or Erythrina x bidwillii another try, and touch the photos of the hedychium in the displays and think, what will autumn be like without their fragrance around the patio and that holboellia was just in too drafty a place. Sigh…. there we go again…pushing the limits, gauging the “warm spots” in the garden, crowding the southern walls and fences with “just maybe” plants. Just incorrigible, I guess.

Cunninghamia tree showing new growth

New growth on a cunninghamia.


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