Annie Calovich

February 16, 2013

On the hunt for winter green

Last week, standing alongside the rock garden in Botanica, at the base of the curved wooden bridge, I gazed around me and was astounded at the number and variety of plants I saw.

Last week, standing alongside the rock garden in Botanica, at the base of the curved wooden bridge, I gazed around me and was astounded at the number and variety of plants I saw.

This is wintertime, after all. Many plants have lost their leaves, and some have even lost their stems, in their dormancy. (Of course, some, given the mild winter, have made an early 2013 appearance.)

But somehow I was struck more by abundance standing there in February than I am when I’m making the rounds in June.

It must be because when the leaves cover the stems and branches, suddenly there is one blanket instead of all these bare arms reaching up to catch it. I marveled at the sheer number of plants, and the stillness.

And then an enormous bushy cat tore across my view toward Botanica’s wide-armed American elm tree and toward, I figured, some poor bird behind it in the brush.

Taking winter walks through Botanica also reveals pleasant surprises in the form of unexpected green. The more I saw of the green the more I wanted to inventory it, to see exactly which plants hang around to keep us company in winter, and which might need to be in our own yard.

Many of the green plants are, naturally, evergreens, meaning they hang onto their leaves or needles year-round. A few of them come into their own in the winter, growing their leaves starting in the fall and losing them or going dormant in summer. And some perennials in their dormancy manage to hold color in their foliage even as the leaves have died back.

The color is not always green. There are the blues of spruces, the grays (and sometimes green, depending on variety) of lavender, the muddy purples of mahonia and wintercreeper euonymus.

But the green is my favorite.

Landscape supervisor Pat McKernan walked around the gardens with me to help me identify the greens. Our trip brought various emotions for McKernan, who alternately was amazed by the presence of February flowers on rosemary (“It’s blooming! It looks like June!”), chagrined by squirrels digging up whole beds of emerging tulips, and worried by early flowering that possibly could take away from the normal springtime show.

Here’s a thumbnail guide to the plants we found in color:

•  I liked this description I saw somewhere of Italian arum: Seeing it outside in the wintertime makes you think somebody brought a houseplant outside and plunked it down. Botanica has several patches of the arrowhead-shaped leaves, patterned in silver, stretched along the ground. As you might imagine, if a plant like this does this well in winter, it must be rambunctious in the summer, to the point of being aggressive. It reseeds itself and pops up all over, McKernan said. It sends up a flower spike in the spring and disappears in the summer, only to put on new leaves again in the fall.
•  Mr. Goldstrike aucuba is another plant that looks like it couldn’t possibly have spent the past few months outdoors. Its leaves look like they’ve been sprinkled with gold dust. Magical.
•  Ground covers loom larger as we persist in a drought. So it’s especially worth noting (and perhaps taking a visit to Botanica to check out) lamiastrum (yellow archangel), lamium (in some places already blooming pink), purple honeysuckle vine growing horizontally on the ground rather than vertically up a trellis or a tree, ajuga, vinca minor, wintercreeper euonymus (mainly purple), English ivy.

Pay no attention to the velvety green henbit and chickweed posing as ground cover, McKernan says. Weeding them out is a constant job, either through the digging up by a volunteer, the spraying of Roundup, or the raking and re-mulching of a path.

Other plants might not on first thought appear to be ground covers but can serve in that role. One of my favorites is liriope, which usually is used as an edging plant. Some ferns stay green through winter, McKernan said, and the low-growing leatherleaf can serve as a ground cover, as can the low evergreen shrubs Emerald Spreader Japanese yew, and Emerald Sea shore juniper (greenish-gray).

•  Among the shrubs: various types of euonymus including Solar Flair, Manhattan and the variegated Silver King; hollies including Little Rascal, whose pristine leaves stand in lovely contrast to the plant’s dark stems, and Oak Leaf red holly; boxwoods, of which Botanica has 10 varieties; nandina; yews; large Birkwood and Pragense viburnums; some azaleas; junipers including Gold Lace, which is gold on the tips of its branches; yucca; glossy abelia that is semi-green, either from winter or summer damage (it’s hard to tell which, McKernan says); cherry laurel; broadleaf rhododendrons; creeping and upright mahonia; William Penn barberry.

Winter jasmine is a winter blooming shrub that has been flowering in yellow fountains for more than three weeks, McKernan said. It also keeps much of its green leaves over the winter. “That’s a tough old plant if it can bloom on a wall like that in February,” McKernan said, noting its presence atop the sensory garden wall.

•  Among the trees: Southern magnolia, pine, incense and doedar cedars and junipers. Arizona cypress and Blue Atlas cedars are blue.
•  Turfgrass. Some of the fescue has a light green cast to it. The patch of artificial turf in the children’s garden is a faded green.
•  Some perennials bloom in late winter; one is the hellebore, whose common name is Lenten rose. Bergenia holds its colorful leaves through winter. And perennials that have maintained a winter presence: coreopsis, campanula, yarrow and potentilla. Dianthus stays gray.

Interestingly, red lycoris has foliage now, but won’t in the summer when its red spidery lilies appear on leafless stems.

•  Bush palmetto and needle palms, from warm-climate gardener Raymond Sharon, who keeps the grounds of First Church of the Nazarene at Kellogg and Ellis.
•  Out-of-season wonders include floribunda roses in beautifully complete green leaf, especially Burgundy Iceberg, and Pink Spangles heather, which is “blooming ridiculously early,” McKernan said. New leaf buds are appearing on pearlbush.

Ornamental kale, normally mushy by now, is an annual that is still holding its own from last fall, and even from last spring, in the case of Glamour Red. It was an All America Selection in 2011.

As I got ready to leave, McKernan reminded me to check out the Japanese apricot just inside the entrance gate. And there was Peggy Clarke, in full pink bloom, in February.

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