Changing seasons has plants in bloom

April 3, 2011 

Spring arrived late this year. Our severe (for here) winter likely was the cause of the delay. Gardeners noted the narcissus and hyacinth families did not begin to flower in January as they often do. They began their show in February and continued to bloom throughout March.

The first day of spring saw the outdoor temperature reach 80 degrees. Coupled with a dry spell, this brought members of the viola family to their knees -- or in garden speak, my pansy plants wilted. Luckily, they revived when temperatures returned to springtime normal as the delivery man arrived with a large box containing the summer flowering bulbs I'd ordered in January.

Nationally known bulb suppliers Brent and Becky's Bulbs have always proved reliable for bulb quality, bulb variety and packaging. This year was a bonanza, the usual bare bulbs were accompanied by a separate large box containing a pot of Bletilla ochracea, the Chinese ground orchid, with six incredibly beautiful and unusual yellow flowers.

I've had such good luck with the more common Bletilla striata purple flowering hardy orchids, that I thought it would be fun to try another member of the family. Never before have I received bulbs in flower. These from Virginia will be planted near their relatives that are flowering now two weeks later than is usual. The naked bulbs are of the Ornithogalum Star of Bethlehem family, variety "Alaska" and "Arabicum." Both have tall growth habits with long-lasting, white, waxy flowers. They're great planted in the ground and in containers.

Whether planted in full sun, partial sun or shade, our native shrubs are the true harbingers of spring. In my yard, spring flowering was two to three weeks later than is usual. The deep blue spires of winter-flowering wildflower lyre-leaf sage did not show color until the last week of March. The red spikes of the buckeye (Aesculus pavia), pink Coastal azalea and the yellow Florida flame azalea burst into flower the first day of spring. This is not OK. As I look out the window I see that almost all trees and shrubs are flowering together; azaleas, dogwoods, camellias and the orchid tree (Bauhinia butterfly flower). The April landscape will be somewhat bare. Talk about late: The citrus trees that normally set buds in winter did not bud up until late March.

In my mind I hear my farmer father say, "A cold, hard-on-the-cattle winter means a hot, dry summer."

What best takes heat and drought are the natives. If there's a place in the yard for another tree or shrub -- now that we have a good selection of native plants available to us -- it's time to join the many who are planting redbud, sassafras, staggerbush, clethra, wisteria, Carolina jessamine, cassia, loblolly bay (Gordonia lasianthus), Cherokee bean or coral bean (Erythrina).

The smart master gardeners among us are thinking, "these plants are not all native to South Carolina," and they're right, of course. Many have their roots in Asian countries. Imported here, they settle in and spread, becoming native. Look at wisteria and Cherokee rose, the state flower of Georgia. You'll find both hugging trees in woodland places.

Once prevalent, many of this region's showy plants are disappearing. It is always exciting to find one, such as wisteria, as I did this week when dining outdoors at a restaurant on Hilton Head Island.

That said, I've no compunction to report new imported varieties that stand to naturalize in our climate. Sassafras tzumu comes with leaves that are larger but are in the same three shapes -- entire, mitten and three-lobed -- as our native species and turn similarly brilliant shades of yellow and orange in the fall. A new Clethra is variety "Monostich" with white, fragrant flowers in summer and good fall color. The historic but fast-disappearing Franklin tree has been crossed with loblolly bay and Schima argentea to reproduce the Franklinia altamaha specimen with four-season interest of large, white, camellia-like flowers, drooping leaves that turn fire engine red in autumn and gray bark with white striations in winter.

Despite difficulties local gardeners have with the saw palmetto, I can't leave it unlisted. Serenoa repens may tend to come up in places where it should not and be difficult to dig up and out, but used in the right way it is charming and trouble-free. Saw palmetto looks good in foundation plantings and massed under tall trees. It has white flowers that become ornamental berries. More importantly, it is a plant for our wildlife; many plants and wildlife are now listed as threatened in much of the Lowcountry.

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