Buds of spring

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Flower bud of Cornus florida, the dogwood, in the garden of Harry and Pamela Fowell, Sydney

I have never enjoyed winter. The prospect of cold, dark mornings, bleak windy days, evenings that draw in rapidly and gloomily, and long, frigid nights, all combine to make winter the most reviled of seasons for many people. Winter sees some people experience an unwelcome lowness of spirits and lethargy, attributable in part at least to the diminished levels of light at this time of year. Gardens too are generally seen at their worst in winter, with the stark bareness of deciduous shrubs and trees; the drab, scruffy or yellowed look of many other plants, especially those some of those from warm-climates; soggy, mossy lawns; naked earth where herbaceous perennials have disappeared underground; few flowers; and little sign of growth anywhere.

Luckily for us, however, our winter is in reality extremely mild and short when compared to many Northern Hemisphere climates where winter is indeed a huge void for the garden. In parts of Northern America, for example, early frosts begin at a time equivalent to our month of March, heavy snow may lie upon the frozen ground for several months, and late frosts can cause destruction in spring gardens in what would be our November or December!

Bud of Magnolia denudata in the garden of Harry and Pamela Fowell, Sydney

And even now, in the middle of July, our coldest month, there already can be seen the signs that spring is just around the corner. To my mind, our early spring begins in August, so it is not that far away and this week I looked around to see what I could find in gardens that augur the promise of spring. One exciting sign is that of the buds of deciduous flowering trees and shrubs that will bloom in late winter and early spring. The most dramatic of these are the plump, hairy buds of Magnolia trees, sitting decoratively on bare twisting branches. In Sydney, these trees begin flowering in August. The most commonly seen type in Sydney is sometimes referred to as the saucer magnolia or tulip tree (Magnolia x soulangeana), an excellent small tree for any garden, growing to around 5-8m with a short trunk and rounded canopy. The flowers are like large white, pink or purplish-pink goblets, which are lightly fragrant and often stained with rosy purple-at their bases or on the outside of their petals in some cultivars. The Yulan tree (Magnolia denudata, ht 7-10m) opens its large, chaste-white tulips around the same time, giving the appearance of doves roosting amongst its bare branches. The flowers have a sweet lemony scent. The star magnolia (Magnolia stellata, ht 3-4.5m) with perfumed flowers of drooping long petals of white or pink, is suitable for places where there is no room for one of the more tree-like types. Magnolias need a sheltered position in the garden to preserve their flowers but they do require a fair amount of sun to bloom well. They thrive in a good, well-drained, humus rich soil slightly on the acidic side. One unfortunate aspect of growing Magnolia in Sydney is that possums enjoy the flowers as much as we do. I'd be interested to hear of any effective method of deterring them.

Prunus campanulata

Ornamental Prunus flower in August and September, and tiny flower buds can already be seen swelling on the bare branches of these trees. The froth of fairy floss blooms with their sweet scent always make me feel that spring has arrived. The very earliest of these are already out: Prunus campanulata (pictured), the Taiwanese bell cherry, has just opened its hanging, cerise blooms, giving hope that we are moving towards warmer weather. The Japanese apricot (Prunus mume, ht 6-8m) has a rosy-red cultivar ('Geisha') with fluffy, deliciously perfumed blooms now, and there is also an early-flowering pinkish-red flowered peach tree (Prunus persica, ht 3-5m).

Hydrangea leaf bud ready to burst into growth in spring

Leaf buds on deciduous trees and shrubs are also thrilling to see at this time of year. The fresh green buds of Hydrangea give hope that what appear now to be woody skeletons will soon be covered with big lush leaves and beautiful rounded heads of flowers. A close inspection of the branches of deciduous trees such as maples, oaks and liquidambars will show embryonic leaf buds forming, creating a lacy silhouette of the tree against the sky.

Camellia Hagoromo syn. Magnoliiflora in the garden of Gillian Parsons, Sydney

In the meantime, as we wait for the buds of spring to open, we can console ourselves with the flowers of winter. Our mild climate means we there are many plants which can bloom for us throughout winter in Sydney. These include some of the stalwarts mentioned in English and American books as winter blooming; others are spring flowering in colder climates but begin to open in winter here because of our mild weather. Others are of subtropical or tropical origins, as well as some of our own native flora, few of which would survive, let alone flower, in a colder climate unless kept in a hothouse. Winter-flowering plants are treasures in any garden, to be admired for their bravery in flowering in the most adverse of seasons when other plants are static. They also provide splashes of colour to distract us from the shabby, bare look which most gardens do develop at this time of year. There are a number of winter-flowering Salvia and a huge range of Camellia japonica; hellebores and snowflakes are now in full bloom, and Daphne is exuding its wonderful scent all around the garden, along with jonquils. Many members of the Acanthaceae family flower in winter in Sydney.

For those who find winter a rather depressing experience, these plants can help make June and July more bearable, the horticultural equivalent perhaps, of the prospect of hearty soups, electric blankets or open fires as seasonal treats. Winter flowers attract birds to the garden and also provide precious material for posies and vases at this time of year. Their presence can also draw us out into the garden, which we might otherwise want to avoid at this time of year. Simply being outside on sunny days can be quite mood enhancing for those suffering from the winter blues resulting from insufficient light in the colder months.