A frequent visitor to the Coastal Lowcountry this February might be confused to find that it appears to be spring already. Shrubs, trees and flowers are flowering a month or more ahead of their usual time.
What is going on? A recent visitor to Hilton Head Island who gardens in Missouri asked a few questions of her resident hostess, a gardener on the island for many years:
Visiting Gardener: My last visit to the island was in March. There was color all over the island; the azaleas in full flower were colliding with still-blooming camellias. There were Saucer Magnolias, red buds and dogwood trees flowering. Now in February I see these flowering, or about to, plus gardens filled with colorful winter annuals of English daisy, wallflower, dianthus and calendula, flowering next to summer annuals of vinca, zinnias, begonias and impatiens.
Resident Gardener: January set records for mild days and nights, with daytime temperatures often in the 70s. There was not a hard freeze; many summer annuals continued to set buds and flowers. Tropical plants were allowed to remain outdoors without protection. The buds of azaleas, hybrids and natives swelled, and many began to flower. Camellias produced a record number of larger than usual flowers.
VG. I am seeing many plants I'm not familiar with and did not see on last year's March visit. Is that due to your mild January?
RG. Yes, it is. Examples are the popular ginger lilies, Ti plants, Angel's Trumpet and oxalis plants that normally disappear into dormancy in the winter. You are seeing narcissus flowering but none of the "paper white" variety. They began blooming in October this year and were flowered out by the New Year.
VG. My husband and I are planning to relocate in Beaufort County. Could you suggest public gardens we might visit to get an idea of what grows here? We are especially interested in native plants that are easy to care for.
RG. We have 10 gardens that are open to the public on Hilton Head. You will see a fine selection of native plants at the Audubon Newhall Nature Preserve on Palmetto Bay Road, and at the Xeriscape Garden at Town Hall off U.S. 278. Blooming now, a month ahead of schedule, are native azaleas, "canescens" with pink flowers; winter jasmine, J. floridum, an evergreen that can reach 4 feet tall and 7 feet wide with showy yellow flowers and a long blooming period; and coastal leucothoe axillaris, also known as doghobble, an evergreen with spreading arching growth and white, pinkish flowers. Winter jasmine also can be seen flowering alongside 278 as you exit the island.
VG. As we drive around the island, I notice that many of the water lakes or lagoons, as you call them, have very low water levels. Is this usual for this time of year?
RG. No, it is not. To go with January's mild weather, we had a shortage of normal rainfall. This has led to a banner year for chewing and sucking insects and disease. Camellia plants are susceptible to lack of water (as well as too much). If the camellia displays yellowing of leaves and you suspect it's due to dry soil, water well, and add organic material and a layer of mulch.
VG. Do you have a favorite native plant?
RG. I do. It's Rhododendron austrinum, Florida Flame, that has orange flowers. Running a close second is winter jasmine, known in its native China as ying ch'un ("welcomer of spring"). So February, ying ch'un, y'all.