Star Gardener: Enchanted Winter

By Abby Jane Brody
Lavender crocus has been blooming in East Hampton since Christmas. Abby Jane Brody

   Remarkable is the only way to describe this winter. Since Christmas there have been small bouquets for the table and friends: sprigs of camellias, witchhazel, winter jasmine, honeysuckle, even a rosebud or two. So many plants have come into flower, some on schedule, but others much earlier.
   It’s worth a detour to McGuirk Street in East Hampton to admire a row of bright yellow daffodils facing south in front of a white picket fence. In January?
    Last Saturday afternoon at a friend’s house a camellia bush was glorious with its display of large white, peony-shape flowers. Nearby was a clump of the white Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, which rarely flowers on Christmas.
   In my own garden, one of the late-blooming, pink autumn camellias, Winter’s Joy, had more than a dozen blooms Saturday, after nearly two months in flower. Last year it had been threatened with eviction because it almost never flowers and I vowed to plant only early-blooming varieties in the future.
   The single red Korean japonicas, which in a good year begin opening in February, started in December and are still going strong. If it should turn bitter cold, the remaining buds are resistant to cold and will open once warmth returns.
   Prunus mume, the Japanese plum (really apricot), has long been at the top of the list of my favorite flowering trees; after the last six weeks, it has cemented its position. Normally it begins to flower here at the end of Febuary if the weather warms up and extends to early April; this year the tree in my garden began flowering Christmas week and has been in full bloom since mid-January.    One of the earliest trees to flower, it symbolizes the beginning of spring in Japan and is celebrated in parks and temples with viewing festivals similar to those held later on for cherries.
    It deserves to be celebrated here as well, but is all but unknown. The many sunny, clear, blue-sky days of the last weeks intensify the color of the pink flowers on my tree, drawing me into the garden to feast on its fragrance and beauty. Its flowers open from the bottom of the stalk up to the tip and its buds, too, are cold-hardy so will easily withstand any arctic freeze.
    It will probably be flowered out by March this year, but who cares? It’s been a gift in January and February. By March there will be plenty of other things competing for the enchantment award.
    Over Christmas weekend when we were playing with a new kitten, Calista Washburn looked out the window and asked, “What is that lavender?” It was a large clump of crocus that continues to put up new flowers. Six weeks of flowering for a crocus is, in my experience, all but unknown. The winter jasmine that cascades over a stone wall has similarly flowered since December, dotted with small yellow stars. This is the kind of display I prefer rather than having it covered with flowers in April, a blob of graceless color.
    More and more different types of snowdrops come into flower with each day. If the weather holds up, the ground will soon be covered with them.
    The hellebores, a mainstay of the early spring garden, are worrying. Day by day, the buds grow fatter and fatter and more and more are opening. A sharp freeze would turn them all to mush. The mantra should be: Concentrate on the now.
    Fortunately many, if not most, winter-flowering shrubs and trees have fragrant blossoms. The large winter honeysuckle, Lonicera x purpusii Winter Beauty, grown from cuttings a friend brought from England a dozen years ago, fills the air with its potent scent. I swoon when I go out to fetch the newspaper. That’s why gardeners fill entrances and walkways with fragrant plants.
    Since moving full time to East Hampton, I’ve tried to grow as many kinds of plants as possible that bloom throughout the year, but especially in winter. Some years the ground is covered with snow, others, a single Johnny-jump-up is a treasure. This year the garden and vases are overflowing with flowers and I, for one, am inspired to seek out even more.
    Should the jet stream assume its normal winter course and temperatures plunge, at least we can savor these enchanted memories.