The Stars of Winter
From the Davis Enterprise, Dec. 30, 2005
wonderful things. They allow quick sorting of information, and make it easy to
compare for specific criteria. One that I've been working on for some time is a
database of flowering plants by their month of bloom in the Sacramento Valley.
Well, let me tell
you: December and January compare rather bleakly in the category of showy
flowering plants! I know, I know, in Northern California we have much to be
grateful for this time of year. After all, as I write this it's below zero in
New England and below freezing throughout the southwestern states. But compare
my list so far: blooming in April? 103 types of plants. Blooming in December?
Now among those 31
are some great, reliable, prolific bloomers. Pansies and violas come in colors
across the whole spectrum, some with the familiar fun faces. Snapdragons give
an excellent show starting in late winter. Cyclamen are available in startling
shades of pink, red, rose, and clean white. Euryops pectinatus (Golden bush daisy) shows off bright yellow
daisies from October well into spring. Even the culinary rosemary is covered
with blue or violet flowers during the foggy winter months.
And there are some
shrubs which bloom in winter. Two are wonderful but fussy, though for different
reasons. Camellias, of course, are the trademark flower of Sacramento, with the
'japonicas' being the most familiar. But as they prefer acid soil conditions,
our hard water requires that we fertilize them regularly with a special
fertilizer. Winter Daphne has powerfully fragrant blossoms on a plant which
requires perfect drainage. Worth the effort for sure, but I've killed my share
gardeners look beyond the flowering plants for seasonal interest in the garden
in December and January. Some plants have showy berries. Others have
interesting foliage from seasonal pigment changes, natural variegation, or
contrast provided by the leaf or needle texture. Some trees even have
interesting bark which becomes more noticeable as it darkens in the rainy
season. Some of these are common landscape shrubs which fade into the
background during riotous spring or langourous summer, suddenly standing out as
deciduous shrubs and trees go bare, and herbaceous perennials die back to their
How about Nandina? The common Heavenly bamboo is used widely
because it grows in shade or sun, is narrow and upright, and has nice soft
foliage. The foliage of 'Compacta', a shorter and denser form, turns a bright
red from late November through January, and the orange-red berries of the
larger Nandina cultivars can be very showy. 'Firepower' and 'Nana Purpurea' are very dwarf
forms with vivid purple-red winter foliage.
Everybody knows Pyracantha, the large thorny shrub with the bright
red berries. But Cotoneaster
(usually pronounced Coe-toe-nee-aster) gives equal beauty and benefit to songbirds on a thornless shrub. Cotoneaster lacteus (Red clusterberry) rivals Pyracantha in size. Many forms grow as low ground covers, including C. congestus, C. dammeri, and C. horizontalis. Each has rosy or dark red fruit.
showing colorful berries right now include Barberry (Berberis), Beautyberry (Callicarpa), Holly (Ilex), and some varieties of roses with their
interesting and elegant hips. If you have a dry garden, the California native
Toyon (Heteromeles) is
a slow-growing but tough shrub, sometimes called Christmas berry for the shiny
deep red fruit.
One tree that has
come into the trade in a big way in recent years provides lots of winter
interest. Arbutus 'Marina'
is something of a mystery plant. Introduced to the trade by the Saratoga
Horticultural Foundation, it is probable that it
arrived in San Francisco in 1917 for the Exposition as part of a consignment of
plants from Europe.' It is probably a hybrid involving three different species
closely related to our native madrone, and has a similar mahogany red trunk,
but is much easier to grow. Like its Irish cousin Arbutus unedo, it has soft fuzzy oranges fruit, but not
so many as to be messy. The rosy pink flowers begin in fall and last into
winter, even as the previous year's fruit is in color. 'Marina' can grow in
light shade or full sun, can tolerate drought or reasonable lawn watering,
grows slowly and is easily kept at 10 – 20'.
There are a few
other trees with showy fruit hanging into winter. Citrus, of course, are
dual-purpose. Probably the most attractive landscape Citrus are the kumquats,
with their profusion of colorful fruit. Kumquats also happen to be among the
hardiest citrus, and grow slowly enough to be a landscape shrub or small tree.
Hawthorn trees (Crataegus species) are noticeable here and there
around town, as some species carry their little apple-shaped, bright red fruit
long after the leaves are gone. But most are prone to fireblight, a devastating
disease in this area, and the one resistant type is very thorny and not common
in the nursery trade. California pepper (Schinus molle) is a lovely tree with
dangling clusters of dry red berries on the female trees. But brittle branches
and aggressive roots make this mostly a choice for rural areas.
does have interesting winter bark, as do many other trees. The character of
bark can be a point of interest on a well-placed tree, especially when winter
moisture brings out the highlights of the wood, and lighting from below can
enhance this feature. As you choose a tree for a focal point, consider the
'Marina', Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia
hybrids), or even some of the smaller Eucalyptus species. Camphor tree (Cinnamomum
camphora), ultimately a very large broad-leaved
evergreen, has attractive foliage and smooth black bark when wet. Catalina
ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus)
is a coastal native which can be seen in the Arboretum near Mrak Hall Incense cedars (Libocedrus decurrens) and many pines round out the list.
landscape palette includes plants selected for elegant charm and rugged
character -- if can look beyond 'just' flowers for seasonal beauty on winter's
gray and gloomy days.
© 2008 Don Shor, Redwood Barn Nursery, Inc., 1607 Fifth Street, Davis, Ca 95616
Feel free to copy and distribute this article with attribution to this author.
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