Flowers for Every Month

Vines, bushes, and trees surprise and delight
Daphne Eternal Fragrance (April through Deep Freeze)

As you go around town you might be forgiven thinking forsythia and Japanese cherries are the only flowering trees and shrubs. After all, they, together with a smattering of others, dominate our landscape.

You would be wrong: There are so many, in fact, even a small garden can accommodate at least one that blossoms every month, if not every day. For the sake of diversity, here are some of my favorites this year, some forgotten classics, and others that are new introductions.

First and foremost are fragrant daphnes, of which we can grow varieties that bloom nearly every month of the year. The most popular is Carole Mackie with variegated foliage and pink flowers in early May. If, however, you have room for only one daphne. At last count there were 20 different varieties in my garden, a group of new hybrids flowers abundantly from spring until cold weather pushes them into dormancy in November or December. The best of these is Eternal Fragrance, a compact bush with glossy dark green leaves.

Staying with daphnes, the February Daphne, D. mezerum, didn’t flower until late March this year, but usually opens earlier. The white form is the more popular and easier to find, but the purple flowers of the species give a welcome shot of color early in the year, and look ravishing rising above a carpet of blue scilla. Its flowers draw pollinators and birds are attracted to its fruit.

The Winter Daphne, D. odora, is alluring. It was cultivated in China over a thousand years ago and was the subject of poetry in the 11th century. It used to be marginally hardy, but it has been reliable in today’s warmer temperatures and longer seasons. The variegated forms are hardier than those with all-green leaves, and the white-flowered form is hardier than the pink. We were introduced to the white, which is performing very well, by Country Line Nursery in Georgia. Perhaps the broadest variety of daphnes is available from Arrowhead Alpines in Michigan.

A purple-leaved Japanese snowbell, which flowers in June after the first rush of spring, is one of the most exciting new trees of recent years. Elegant and small, Styrax japonica Evening Light more than lives up to expectations and is the delight of those who grow it. There are a number of cultivars of weeping styrax that look especially good flanking wide staircases or in containers. Not to be dismissed is the fragrant snowbell, S. obassia, also a small tree, with large leaves undercoated with silver. The white flowers are followed by fruit that reminds me of alabaster grapes.

The Japanese stewartia is relatively popular here. Its large white camellia-like blossoms open from late June into July, but its handsome exfoliating bark makes it appealing throughout the year. Less frequently encountered is the orange bark or tall stewartia, S. monodelpha, covered with small white flowers in late June. The spent flowers carpet the ground, an outstanding feature. When the sun hits the tree, especially in early morning, the cinnamon colored bark glows. When I was planning my woodland garden, I knew instinctively this tall stewartia should be the focal point at its heart, and it has more than lived up to expectations.

Last June on a garden tour I nearly swooned on encountering another, the beaked stewartia, S. rostrata, from China. Its soft pink, cuplike flowers were like nothing I’d seen before. It seems to be offered only by Broken Arrow Nursery in Connecticut, which says the pinkish-red fruits extend its ornamental value. If you have space in the sun for a tree that grows from 6 to 12 inches a year, run, don’t walk, to get one.

The fringe tree is one of the most striking and beautiful of all spring-flowering trees, but it is all but never seen, except in botanical gardens. It is covered with white froth in May and June. To see one in flower is to want it. Like many woody plants there is an Asian species and a second, native to the East Coast. Also like others, the Asian species makes a better garden plant, flowering earlier and lasting longer, and not needing a partner to fruit. If you opt for the native, your best bet is to select a male because its flowers are larger and last longer.

In high summer when our senses are overloaded in our gardens, you might add to your delight with a number of excellent shrubs and vines new to our area.

We are drowning in hydrangeas, but a couple of newcomers are worth noting. Big-leaf hydrangeas like the ubiquitous Nikko Blue have suffered these last few years and most of mine either succumbed to the weather or the deer. I’ve turned to the native smooth hydrangea, H. arborescens, of which Annabelle is the best known. What I like about Annabelle is that the bushes are cut back in autumn or winter so they aren’t destroyed by deer. In addition, it flowers on new growth so is not damaged by late frosts.

Incrediball, growing at the entrance to the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden behind Clinton Academy on Main Street in East Hampton Village, has huge white mopheads that stand upright on strong stems, and it does well in either sun or shade. Haas Halo, a new introduction I am keen on trying, has oversized white lace-cap flowers, also on strong stems.

After the bitter cold winter two years ago I was surprised to find a group of hydrangeas, lush with velvety purple leaves, in Dennis Schrader and Bill Smith’s garden in Mattituck. We don’t expect this type of hydrangea, H. aspera, from the mountains of China, to be vigorous and hardy in our climate, but there they were, in shade and shielded from wind. Called Plum Passion, it was discovered and introduced by Dan Hinkley for Monrovia (carried by local garden centers), and is a must-have shrub.

Also from China is a trumpet vine, Campsis grandiflora Morning Calm, with very large peach flowers with yellow throats. Thanks to climate change it has become hardy here. Unlike the invasive, suckering, clinging native trumpet vine that rips shingles off buildings, Morning Calm behaves itself. At Swarthmore College it shares a strong upright 4-by-4 with a clematis in the sun; in my garden it is establishing itself well, growing on a native Virginia cedar in partial sun.

Two very handsome butterfly bushes, again from China, are far better than those we are familiar with. Both begin flowering in July and continue for months. The weeping butterfly bush, Buddleia lindleyana, has two-foot-long panicles of purple-lilac flowers and interesting cinnamon peeling bark. The second, B. nivea, makes a large shrub (8 to 12 feet) with showy large leaves covered in white down with light pink flowers. Both are available from Landcraft Environments, so ask your garden center to order them.

Three plants are especially valued in autumn. One is increasingly being used as a relatively deer-proof hedge, the false holly, Osmanthus heterophyllus. It flowers in October and November. You might not notice the clusters of small white flowers until the perfume captures your attention. In June the bushes are covered with fruit that looks like olives and is devoured by flocks of birds that swoop down and strip the plants bare.

In Japan, just as they have spring cherry blossom festivals, in October they celebrate the flowering of bush clover, lespedeza. The large and sprawling bushes with lavender flowers are the most popular and arresting, but I prefer in a small garden situation the white form that is upright and elegant.

The seven-son flower, Heptacodium, is my third choice for autumn for its spectacular clusters of red fruit in October, not for its flowers, which are small, white, and open in August. Walk into any garden in October and heptacodium competes, even outcompetes, the most brilliant foliage around.

In winter there are trees and shrubs that blossom from Christmas through March, except when covered with snow or we are in a deep freeze. Witch hazels and winter honeysuckle shrubs are the mainstays of the winter garden, but there are numerous others. Most take up little space so you can plant them all.

Winter jasmine is a cascading shrub that looks best on a slope or wall. Its wiry green stems are covered with sunny yellow flowers and enough buds so if the cold kills some flowers, the buds kick in and open during warm spells. This year mine flowered off and on, but mostly on, from Christmas into April. Without some care the bush can become a tangled mess. After flowering I cut mine back to about a foot, and within a short time there is a nice cascade of new green stems.

Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, flowers reliably for me from Christmas through January, although flowers can be forced for the Thanksgiving table. A stem of small yellow waxy flowers with maroon in the center will perfume an entire room. Some people plant it near a doorway and prune it as a small espalier. Run a clematis up the shrub and it gives two seasons of interest.

The Korean forsythia is little known or used. It has white flowers against thin black stems and opens several weeks before the more popular yellow form. It requires a moderate amount of pruning like most shrubs, but that is more than rewarded by a welcome mass of white flowers in March

Japanese Styrax Evening Light (Late Spring)
Chinese Fringe Tree (Late Spring)
Chinese Trumpet Vine Morning Calm (Summer)
Weeping Butterfly Bush (Summer)
Wintersweet (January)
Heptacodium Fruit (October)
Korean forsythia (March)­