Companion plant: Hamamelis

Winter flowering shrubs in a garden can really help to lift your spirits on those dark, dreary...and often incessant rainy days from December to the end of February. Some of the very best winter flowering shrubs are the Hamamelis or witch hazel plants.

These plants start blooming after the leaves have dropped in the fall and carry right through into March. Many of you may be familiar with Hamamelis mollis which is yellow in color. The flowers have four petals which are very small short straps of color close to the stem. These flowers are remarkably weather hardy and withstand cold spells...even snow. They bounce back after mild frosts although long periods of exposure to frost can turn them to brown mush.

Many different varieties of Hamamelis are available at your local garden center. The best time to shop for these plants is during the winter months when the garden centers usually showcase what is in bloom. They will often have Hamamelis plants in full bloom at the entrances to the sales area in order to attract customers. Who wouldn't be tempted? Hamamelis plants are not cheap! One has to pay a fairly high price compared to other plants...but they are worth it. Hamamelis are easy to grow and reward you each year with an excellent display of winter color. Small one-gallon plants can cost about $10-$14, while a two-gallon about $20-$24. Plants that have been field grown and recently dug can cost about $35 to $60, depending on size.

The witch hazels come in a variety of flower colors...ranging from the pale yellows ('Pallida') through burnt ambers ('Jelena') to a deep red beauty ('Diane'). Many varieties have a strong and pleasant fragrance. 'Arnold Promise' performs well in the garden, flowers heavily, and its light yellow flowers are scented.

Witch hazels can be grown in most soils that are slightly acid or neutral. They should be grown in either full sun or light shade. They are a natural woodland plant, can grow to around 4m with age, and require very little attention by way of pruning. Witch hazels have gorgeous fall foliage color...ranging from yellow to orange and even red depending on the variety.

Hamamelis species come from North America (H. virginiana), from China (H. mollis), and from Japan (H. japonica). The Chinese and Japanese Witch Hazels are the parents of many hybrids that are available in the nursery trade today. Early settlers in America used the whippy stems of H. virginiana for water divining. Its powers are considered to be derived from its similarities to Corylus, the hazelnut.

Rhododendron arboreum

R. arboreum is possibly the most widespread rhododendron in the world.  The plants grow in the wild in southeast Asia occupying a wide arc on the southern slopes of the Himalaya Mountains, from Kashmir through Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Manipur, a distance of about 1,500 miles.  In its native habitat some arboretum forms can grow up to 60 feet tall, but in cultivation, it rarely grows over 40 feet.  Most experts say it will grow to be about 6 ft. tall in 10 years. So don't let its mature height keep you from planting one in your garden.

The leaves of R. arboreum are large; 4 to 8 in. long and up to 2 in. or more wide. They are thick and leathery. Arboreum leaves are glossy, deep green on top, with the underside covered with a thin plastered or woolly indumentum that varies in color between different subspecies. The color of the flowers varies considerably, from white to shades of pink or red. Some of the white and pink forms sometimes will have deeper colored spots which add to their interest and beauty. All have nectar pouches at the base of the flower. Flowers are bell-shaped and are held in trusses of 15 to 20 flowers. The blood-red forms are generally considered to be the most tender.

Since the British Empire previously occupied much of the area where R. arboreum grows, and much of the early rhododendron hybridizing occurred in the British Isles, the species has been often used as a hybrid plant parent. Arboreum seed was first sent back to Britain from Nepal almost 200 years ago. Some examples of hybrids where R. arboreum has been used as a parent include:

R. 'Bibiani', ('Moser's Maroon' x R. arboreum ssp. arboreum)

R. 'Cornubia', (R. arboreum ssp. arboreum, red form x Shilsonii Group)

R. 'Doncaster', (R. arboreum ssp. arboreum x unknown)

R. 'Loders White', (R. arboreum ssp. cinnamomeum var. album x R. griffithianum)

R. Nobleanum Group, (R. caucasicum x R. arboreum ssp. arboreum)

Rhododendron leucaspis

Last year while attending a local rock and alpine garden show, I saw Rhododendron leucaspis in bloom for the first time and it immediately went to the top of my wish list. I looked around for a plant locally without success and had to put it on the back burner. So time passes and a few months later, I'm on my way to the ARS western regional fall conference in Newport Oregon and on the way there I decided I wasn't going to buy any plants, (Yeah, right!) as I was going to be on the road for a few days before heading home, and didn't want to have to fuss with looking after plants and deal with the border crossing. But, wouldn't you know it, the first plant I spotted on the Rhododendron Species Foundation's sales table was R. leucaspis, and I just had to have it - so much for resolutions about not buying anymore plants!

The plant I saw at the rock and alpine show is wintered under cover. The grower, a fellow "rhodoholic", thinks it might be a bit tender here in Victoria and I didn't want to take any chances with my new plant, so I over-wintered it in my sunroom - probably a good idea as this past winter was longer and colder than we've had in awhile. I've since learned from others that they're able to grow R. leucaspis outside reliably, so it is probably totally hardy in zone 7. My new plant was loaded with flower buds and blooming started in mid-February. It finished blooming at the end of March and in addition to lovely white flowers, to my delight, the flowers had a light fragrance, most noticeable when the temperature rose.

R. leucaspis is a small plant with clear white flowers. The stamens are very dark and stand out against the white petals. The petals are slightly reflexed, giving the flowers a nice, open appearance. Flowers are about 2 inches across and are held two or three to a truss. The plant itself has "smallish", dark green, slightly hairy leaves which provide a wonderful background to the white flowers. The plant height is about 2 feet in ten years. Since it is a small plant, I intend to keep it in a container, at least for now.

There are lots of great reasons to attend the ARS conferences: nice people, good talks, wonderful gardens to visit and the plant sales. I have no regrets that I didn't stick to my resolution of not buying another plant! I've made the same resolution about not buying anything at the 2017 Eureka ARS Convention, but I wonder what treasures I'll find and just have to have?

Legal-tender Rhododendron Coin

In September 2012, the Royal Canadian Mint released the $20 Rhododendron Blossoms Pure Silver Proof as the third coin in the Crystal Dewdrops Series and Wildflower Series and the eighth release in the Swarovski Crystal Flora Program. The image is that of the Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) from the North American Pacific Coast, which is enjoyed in gardens across much of North America. The Water Lily Pure Silver Proof (2010) was the first in the Crystal Dewdrops Series and the third release in the Swarovski Crystal Flora Program, while the Wild Rose Blossoms Pure Silver Proof was the second in the Crystal Dewdrops Series and the fifth release in the Swarovski Crystal Flora Program.

Rhododendron coin

The coin's special features are an artistic rendering of two pink-coloured Pacific rhododendron flowers and a bud, three crystals nestled among the rhododendron's petals and leaves, a Finish Proof, a limited mintage (10,000), and a composition of fine silver (99.99% pure).

The coin comes enclosed in a maroon flock-lined clam-shell case, is protected by a black sleeve and has a serialized certificate to document its quality. The coin weighs 31.39 g (1.11 oz US) and has a diameter of 38 mm (1.5 in).

Rhododendron Winter Damage and Prevention

Frost causes considerable damage to leaves, stems, buds, and flowers of some rhododendrons. On damaged plants leaves will be distorted, curled, and may grow only on one side of the main vein. Part or all of a winter-damaged leaf will be brown-colored. If too unsightly, remove the damaged leaves.

Some rhododendrons protect themselves from winter dehydration by drooping and curling their leaves as temperatures decrease. Leaf movement occurs rapidly and it is reversible as temperature warms.

Frost also will cause the bark of affected stems to split longitudinally near ground level...even peeling away. This typically happens in early fall or late spring when the plant is not fully dormant. Often these symptoms are overlooked and damage only noticed at a later date. If noticed recently after the injury and before the bark has had time to dry out the area can be wrapped with galvanized wire or a non-sticky wrapping. Check the wrapping monthly and remove the wire when the repair is successful.

Cold weather may cause branches to appear to be dead. Wait until late spring then scratch the bark on dead-looking branches. If there is green wood underneath, the branch is still alive, leave it in place. If it's brown underneath, the branch is dead and can be pruned off.

Cold weather can kill flower buds. Dead buds are brown-colored and easily break off. Often rhododendron buds are less hardy than other parts of the plant. Choose varieties that are bud cold-hardy for your area.

Because rhododendrons roots are very shallow, it's important to use a thick layer of mulch to provide protection from the cold. It'll also slow water evaporation from the ground, helping plants to stay hydrated. On warm days water your plants so they have a chance to survive cold periods.

A windbreak made from burlap, lattice or a snow fence can help prevent damage from winter's drying winds.

Finnerty Gardens

Finnerty Gardens has one of Canada's best collections of rhododendrons. Located on the University of Victoria grounds the spectacular garden contains over 4,000 different trees and shrubs with more than 1,500 rhododendron and azalea plants, including 200 collected rhododendron species, and a wide range of companion plants artistically displayed on a 6.5 acre site at the southwest corner of campus.

The Gardens were developed in 1974 when the estate of Mrs. Jeanne Buchanan Simpson of Cowichan Lake was left to the University. She and her husband George, beginning in the 1920's, built up a notable collection of rhododendron species at their Lake Cowichan home. Many plants were grown from seed obtained directly or indirectly from famous plant explorers of the day. Theirs was the largest rhododendron collection in British Columbia. The University decided to move many of the rhododendrons to their campus where they would form the nucleus of a new garden that was created on nearly three acres of land at the south end of the campus.

After the death of her husband, Mrs. Simpson had been unable to maintain the garden properly. The rhododendrons had to struggle for survival without the benefit of summer watering and in competition with the invading "jungle". The Simpson plants were up to 50 years old and presented a challenge to the transplanters. You will recognize these sometimes distorted giants in the Garden today. Most of them are R. decorum or R. fortunei.

The gardens have been carefully planned and developed to provide a rich and changing array of colour, scent, form and texture all year round. In April and May, you will see the rhododendrons at their best. For a plant identification guide and map of the gardens, download a self-guided walking tour pamphlet. For more information about Finnerty Gardens visit their website.

 
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