}

January 26, 2016

I'm Starting a New Plant Society - Dahlias Anyone?

Proudly announcing the NEW ENGLAND DAHLIA SOCIETY. Please join if you are close to Worcester, MA!

I'm so excited to be able to share this with you - I've decided to kick-off a new chapter of the American Dahlia Society which will be located, or based, right here in central New England so that we could have our exhibitions at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. I'm proud to announce the New England Dahlia Society (circa 2016). Check out our new Facebook page here.


This all came about rather recently, although I had been throwing around the idea for a couple of years now. Many of you know that I have a long history with plant society( even entering my first Dahlia show back in the 1970's at the Worcester County Horticultural Society (which is now located at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden). 

Now for the surprising confession - to be honest, I am not a super passionate dahlia grower. I mean, I grow a few, but not as many as other members in the Dahlias society do - but I sense this is changing. Three years ago about 10 varieties. Last year 30 varieties, and this year? Well, you can see where this is going.


I'm starting this new chapter because I have realized that I am not alone amongst my peers. I realized this at, of all things, a cocktail reception celebrating a talk by Peter Korn from Gothenburg Botanic Garden,  at the home of noted botanist and nursery woman, Ellen Hornig. We were just chatting about her new garden, and yaking it up about such rarities such as Himalayan poppies, Podophyllum concerns, the challenges of growing Eritrichium species in  New England and stuff like that, when this happened: 

"So, Matt...what've you been growing in your greenhouse lately?" How did that Martha Stewart photoshoot go last month?"

I replied - "well,  the shoot was crazy - I mean, the planning, the photographer flying out from London at last minute, Doodles the dog getting laid right in the middle of it, then, they wanted fog, so Joe lit up the bee smoker - and when the firetrucks arrived.......oh, plus this year, for some reason, my Nerine sarniensis are blooming better than ever. Don't know why, as I've been totally abusing them.".

"..and.." I ended it with, " I'm thinking of starting a Dahlia Society chapter."

Shockingly, I didn't hear crickets. Instead, people became animated.




"I grow lots of Dahlias" said Roy Herald. He's a noted Hosta breeder, the sort of plant geek who is also a real plant explore. I mean, he traveled to China with Dan Hinkley and he's a noted authority on South African neophytes,  cacti and succulents and junk without any leaves. 

Really? Roy and Helen  Herold would join?  Wow.

"Really. I'll join if you started it? Roy said with a smile.
"...and be sure to ask Jan and Marty, they'll probably join as well, I know that they grow a mess of dahlias for cut flowers. " Roy said.

Whah? Jan Saks and Marty Shaefer? The expert Siberian Iris breeders? I know that they grow lots of cut flowers for the Boston market like sweet peas and delphinium, but dahlias? Hmmmm. Maybe this will work.

"So  Matt, did I over hear that you said that you want to start a Dahlia chapter? I'll join." Chimed in Ellen Hornig". "I keep a row in the back of the vegetable garden, and a few new ones here and there around the garden.".

Rrrrrreally... Ellen Hornig -the former-proprietor-of-Senneca-Hill-nursery-Ellen-Hornig. SHE wants to grow dahlias?

The same response came from a number of plant society superstars. Glen Lord, even said that he wanted to join, and he's already started ordering tubers.




 I expected my basic fanbase to love this idea. I mean, the flower farm audience, as well as those of you who gush over every luscious image on the Floret Farm site,and at, well, most any wedding blog. 

To clincher was, my most geeky plant friend Glen Lord, from Lordiculturals, the potter, bonsai expert and former president of the Massachusetts Cactus and Succulent Society. He  came by to go shopping at Logee's with me, and I mentioned the new group to him - and even HE became excited about joining.  

Dahlia's are catnip, at least for plant geeks.



In the end, it's not surprising, really, given the new found popularity with the old fashioned dahlia. One could argue that this flower from Mexico that grows from a potato-like tuber has a bright future. They are easy, well, at least easier than most any other flower-show plant aside from the daylily, and they reproduce! More tubers next year!

So why don't you join? Hell, everyone else is!


Our first meeting is here at our house, on Saturday, Feb. 27 at noon, so that you'll have time to walk through the greenhouse and eat lunch. If you live near central Massachusetts - and that includes a 1.5 hour radius including southern Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, western NY state, northern CT or RI, I welcome you to attend this first meeting of the new New England Dahlia Society.

I'll make a clever, themed lunch (which if you've ever attended a meeting here, you kind-of know what to expect. Remember our place is not fancy, and we have puppies now, so it will be even more crazy!

Come even if you are just curious, too. Just see what this new group is all about, I know that some already who are coming have never even grown more than 2 dahlias, so we are at all levels.   Please RSVP in comments here, on our new Facebook Page where I'll be updating information regarding both the chapter, or the meeting.














January 18, 2016

Carnationist Aspirations - Infatuated with Malmaison Carnations





Someone asked me recently if I ever feel as if I am going to run out of things to try growing, and when I thought about it, I somehow felt a little shocked - as if someone could ask " do you ever feel as if you will run out of ideas and never be creative again? Maybe it's the creative in me, the artist who must remain ever vigilant in sourcing  inspirations or influence, but ideas, for me, are never a problem, If anything, they can be a burden. So much to do, so little time!


Most of you already know about my other obsessions with plants, my 30 year relationship with cut flower exhibitions sweet peas (sometimes I think I even started the current trend ten years ago!), my current infatuation with exhibition and Japanese Chrysanthemums, on the deck are Dahlias, but even more tempting to me are carnations. Particularly, the old, cut flower ones, and most recently, the very choice and hard to find 'Malmaison' carnations. I'll add this tag line, since it usually follows many of my posts about old flowers, but here goes - The mid 19th century cut flowers, are perhaps the 'slowest' flowers of all. Localists celebrated what could only be raised underglass, locally. Camellias, violets, roses, chrysanthemums and carnations. Along with the tuberose and lily of the valley, these were the most common cut flower in florist shops, and in conservatories kept on the grand, American estates.

Shipping flowers in the late 19th century only meant 'by rail'. Wooden crates, lined with oiled paper and cotton could carry thousands of flowers, and in fact, millions where shipped this way until air travel became popular around 1940. This old label for a railroad package was offered by the Society of American Florists to use on carnation crates.



The carnations societies in the Eastern US were large and popular. This show in 1910 Detroit shows how massive and well attended some of the exhibitions, were.

The story behind this once - most popular cut flower for Amercian florists to grow, might just be the perfect example of humankind realizing the benefits of a global market. Once, second only to the rose, the carnation was so popular that hundreds of millions of flowers were grown, just in this country alone. As air travel became more efficient, the wooded boxes that wholesale growers once packed and bundled for train travel, evolved to meet the needs of a global market. The light quality needed for Carnations moved the center of carnation culture from New England around the year 1900, to the high mountains of Colorado in the 1970's, where the light quality was far better, to Israel, the Gaza Strip, Columbia and Peru where today, most of our carnation crops comes from.

A list from 1889 showing some of the finest pink varieties, didn't list my 'Duchess of Westminster' carnation. With further research, I discovered it in another book, listed not as a Perpetual carnation, but a type known as a Malmaison.


Only in England, do garden centers and nurseries still sell carnations for the home grower and the few carnation enthusiasts, while in North America, they have become essentially, unavailable anywhere. So started my hunt to discover more about the lost carnations of America, and why we cannot find the anywhere today ( aside from some seed strains of a rather poor, smaller type sold as 'Chaubaud Gants', not worth raising in one wants the gorgeous and impressive long-stemmed varieties with large flowers, once so popular, or if one wants to grow carnations that look overmuch like carnations. What's a gardener to do?

On-line sources for information about old techniques are easy to find, using Google images and Google digital books.

I put an 'all points bulletin' type request out on my social media last fall, tring, pleading, actually, to find some sources for carnations. No luck, but I am certain that some exist still in private estate collections or in some secret greenhouse at places like Longwood. I did find a couple of the lost and rare 'Perpetual's' at Annies Annuals, which I ordered and have planted in the greenhouse, as well as  a terrific discovery of a very old one last week at Logee's Greenhouses, a carnation named 'Duchess of Westminster', which itself, has taken me on a bit of a journey.




As it turns out, this carnation 'Duchess of Westminster' is what is known as a 'Malmaison' type of carnation', or a 'Malmaison Carnation'. Bred in France in 1857, they are very special ( or, at least, they were once considered very special, today, don't expect to walk into a florist shop as ask for a 'Malmaison carnation' not try to find seed or cuttings for them. The Malmaison's are simple on the edge of extinction. Now rare, and more difficult to both find, and to grow, but more about all that later. First, some carnation 101, to bring you up to speed.

19th Century brought many new carnation selections to the market, making the flower the second most popular cut flower in the US and in Europe. Stripes, flakes and Fancies like this one, filled winter greenhouses and made their way to florist shops.

Carnations are old. Raised as a cut or even a garden flower, they date back to Roman times, but most historians agree that things really didn't take off until the early nineteenth century, thanks to glass greenhouses, stoves and heating.

Old books about how to raise carnations still exist, such as this one from the late 1800's

 By the mid 1800's, carnations were becoming extremely popular in the West, with hundreds of named varieties being bred and raised by the British, the French and the Americans, and millions of cut stems being shipped to florists in cities. The French, British and Americans all developed multiple 'perpetual' carnations, which were summer blooming outdoors in warmer, Mediterranean climates, and were best as grown as a winter blooming crop, when grown in North America. Border carnations, pinks and many species of alpine forms became available, but none were as popular and diverse as the perpetuals were.


Perpetual carnations came in at least four types. This picotee form is a favorite.


Like the tall, cut flower sweet peas, also popular in the last 19th century, all carnations were not species, but essentially man-made. This means that varieties were selected, and crosses, only the best were propagated, and many named varieties were created.  Today, many new hybrids are being bred, but what I find interesting, are the old varieties. Saving some of these old varieties is historical preservation, which in many ways, is just as important as saving or preserving the many wild species, which of course, I support as well. So many have already been lost, but some enthusiasts continue to save found selections, either in National Collections, or in their private gardens and greenhouses. The only problem is, few people in the US can collect these carnations, since hardly any varieties at all, can be found. A sad statement for what was once, the planets largest grower and importer of these flowers.

Although the perpetual carnations are top on my list for saving, or even for acquiring as I would welcome any of the new hybrids, there are some types of carnations which are even more desirable, in particular, I have discovered the Malmaison types.




The Malmaison Carnations

Back to my very old discovery from Logee's Greenhouses in Conn. 'a 1906 introduction named 'Duchess of Westminster' which I now know as a true 'Malmaison carnation' and one which I have to admit is not completely new to me - I had tried it before, purchasing it as long ago in the late 1970's or 1980's from the Logee's pit house when Mrs. Logee Martin talked me into buying it. She told me that they used to grow it there, as a cut flower back in the early 20th century, when they would grow cut flowers to ship to the New York Market. I should mention - Logee's doesn't list this plant in their catalogs or on their website, you may need to ask them for it. Many of the old pit house plants, can only be found in their pit house, when they happen to propagate them.

So, I can safely say that over the decades, I have probably killed at least a half dozen of these  'Duchess of Westminster' carnations - but I never really knew what I had. A good example of why any gardener should take the time to research, for I am certain that I am not alone, in sometimes just assuming that "regular 'ol garden soil and a pot' will suffice, or, 'just plant it in the ground, and it will simple grow.". Thanks to Google, the Internet, the library at Tower Hill Botanic Garden and a little spare time, I now can see where I went wrong, but most of all, this research has only inspired me to attempt mastering its culture. Thankfully, I have the greenhouse.

The foliage on the Malmaison carnations is much more robust, nearly three times as wide than the foliage on a perpetual carnation, which you can barely see on the right hand side of the image.


Malmaison carnations are quite different than other cut flower types such as the border carnations, and the perpetual carnations. They date back nearly as far as their kid do, to the 1850's, when in France, this special type was presumably bred yet the parentage is still uncertain. Named after Empress Josephine's residence 'Malmaison , not because they were invented there, but only because the flowers resembled the large, flouncy Bourbon roses so popular then, in particular, the variety known as 'Souvenir de la Malmaison'. I have that variety in the garden as well, which tells me that the flowers must be looser, and well, rustic. Nice.

You can see the differences in leaf size between the Malmaison carnation and a perpetual carnation, here.



As for the Malmaison's differentiating  points from the other cut flower types of carnations? As you can see in the above images, their foliage is larger, much thicker and denser than florist or the perpetual carnations - As for floral differences, I have read that they are much more fragrant, and even larger than perpetual carnations, but no image seems to indicate that they have better form, most seem loose, and they are known to be prone to split their flowers.

The Malmaison carnations are more at home when raised in a greenhouse, as well, preferring drier and colder conditions under glass. These requirements hint to their challenge as they are best when raised in pots, and demand a colder winter period, near freezing, yet with buoyant air, and bright light. Not exactly easy to achieve in warmer climates, and almost impossible in others. These are difficult conditions to maintain, especially in North America. With a glass greenhouse which I keep cold, I might have a chance, but there is still plenty to go wrong, especially given their long growing season of 18 months, or more.



This scanned image of text  from a 19th century book on raising Malmaison Carnations was very helpful. However, it's not very encouraging, often repeating how difficult they can be.


I am becoming obsessed with the Malmaison's however, and thinking that I might have a chance now that I know what they need. Any success should prove exciting, as they seem to have much to offer the curious plansman - first, they produce a larger plant, with more attractive, larger foliage, and many more blooms than perpetuals, which are generally raised in open beds. The Malmaison's were often displayed in conservatories, and at horticultural societies where estate growers could show off their large pots with lots of blooms on long stems.


More copy about how to raise Malmaison carnations, as well as informing me about some of the history behind the plants.




Sure, I have visions of such pots, but I doubt that will happen here. But if I can get 6 or 8 flowers at one time, vs the 1 or 2 with a perpetual, I will be thrilled. Maybe with attentive care over a couple of years, I could get a potted plant with dozens of stems of flowers, there is literature where growers, even those for the Queen of England, which showed pots with hundreds of blooms. The finest gardeners in Edwardian England had their tricks, and I do have some of those books, but I don't live in the UK, and I fear that our hot summers may 'do them in'


I do enjoy all of the vintage advertisements in all of the old books about carnations. It's amazing, and sad, to see how many greenhouses existed in the North East however.



I'll concede that raising carnations today is rather impractical for most gardeners, unless one lives in Northern California. They will never make nice and full garden specimens, which is probably why you won't see any being offered at the big box store nurseries, or by companies like Proven Winners. These cut flower types are challenging, and best if grown from cuttings annually, raised under glass, in gridded flower farm netting, and then disposed of only to start again with a new set of cuttings.

The old way of cuttings struck in February,  then rooted under glass, set out into outdoor cold frames or beds for summer growth, and then dug up, and taken in for the autumn in glass greenhouses, where they are kept until buds form, kept through the winter, and then, if one is lucky, allowed to bloom during the late winter, into spring when when the entire process started over again - it was just an impractical, hands-on process which today, few bother with when it comes to agriculture, unless one is raising wine grapes!









The Malmaison carnations may soon be lost, but I want to try them, if only for one more time. Sure, they demand more care, but as you know, that only makes me want to grow them even more. I can;t help myself especially when they seem so romantic due to their rarity - growable antiquity. I can raise something only experienced 150 years ago, smell it, care for it, like a bit of living history.

So I am starting my own collection of Malmaison carnations with this century-old variety I found last weekend,  this salmon pink 'Duchess of Westminster', and although I know this name has nothing to do with the Kennel Club, I kind of like the relationship it offers, maybe it's a good sign. Today I potted it up in the dense garden loam, as the old books suggest, packing it in nice and tight, keeping it cold and dry, near the glass on the cold side of the greenhouse.

As for guidelines, there are many old horticultural journals from the 1800's available on-line (through Google digital book), and they have been helpful, but as these are old techniques, I may have to ask as few of the British collectors for some tips.

There are a few sources in the UK for Malmaison carnations, which makes a trip over there more likely, for me! Allwood's offers a collection even, and  I can sure that a few enthusiasts in the many carnation societies in the UK could find some to share with a desperate American. Getting back home, would be the only problem (not that that has stopped me before!).

The flowers themselves are looser, and perhaps not even as attractive as the newer and fuller perpetual carnations, like those you see at the florist today, but they are known to be larger, and more fragrant. I don't really care about the size nor the vigor, as I am about the fragrance, and history - for like many old flowers that I want to grow, it's all about the provenance.

As for other carnations, I am still on a hunt - a mad hunt, for any.  I welcome and tips on sources for the old border, perpetual or now, Malmaison carnation - cuttings or plants. If you  know of any source - please let me know. Many of you shared delightful sources for other Dianthus, but mostly for garden pinks, or the old annual forms such as 'Chaubaud Giants'. It's the cut flower forms I am looking for, and they may turn up in surprising places. An old florist who still grows plants, an old conservatory at an estate (like, I imagine that Isabella Stewart Gardner would have raised these Malmaisons?), or some enthusiast in California who might have some outdoors, or even one of you fine British growers who could spare a cutting or two when I visit next - perhaps in May?). Hint hint!


I could go on and on about carnations as both garden plants, and as greenhouse cut flowers, but that, I will need to save for a book or a longer article, as there is just too much to cover in a single blog post. I have been building an enormous file of information about both the history of these important 19th Century cut flower, as well as a database of cultural and social information. For example, I never knew about the connection of the carnation, with Mother's Day, and how Anna Jarvis, the founder of Mother's Day in 1948 used the carnation as a marketing tool. I never knew about the Russian royal family, the Romanov's, and how they raised Malmaison carnations in their greenhouses. Oh, so much more to discover here about this ridiculously common, yet somehow unknown or at least, un appreciated flower.





January 14, 2016

Mid-Season Citrus, Camellias and a Nice Clivia

Clivia from our collecting trips to Japan remain most prominent in our collection, but many of these seedlings have yet to bloom. Most, thankfully, are interesting crosses, such as this interspecific, a cross between Clivia miniata and C. gardenii. With flowers that at more pastel in color, and slender in form, it can look very un-clivia like, especially when the plant produces many stems, as this one has. I know that I can't keep them all, but somehow, I am!


There's a season for everything around here, and even though it is January and mid winter, in the greenhouse, it's clearly spring. This has to be one of the most amazing things about keeping a greenhouse in the cold north - that under-glass, it's a completely different world than what it is outside. Plants however, are still responding to the factors that control bloom time and dormancy, and for us that means that South African plants are sensing the triggers to bloom, that citrus are beginning to ripen their fruit, since they are convinced that they are in southern Italy, sunny Israel or even, in California. The fact that my lemons are 32 miles from snowy Boston? Doesn't factor in.

I love that. 

Please, don't tell the camellias that it is 6 degrees F. outside.


With two Meyer lemon trees ripening about 100 lemons, I sense a batch of marmalade and lemon curd on the horizon.



Giant Etrog Citron's ripen in the January sunshine. So huge and unusual, these citrons are not only important in the Jewish culture, they are delicious, but don't expect any juicy flesh. Instead they are all pith. A thick, white pith which ripens to a fragrant, violet-scented crispy apple-like texture which have to be experienced to be appreciated.




Calamondin oranges, tiny, sour and in this case, variegated, not only makes an attractive greenhouse specimen, it makes a great house plant. As for the fruit? Save them for your cup of tea. Alone, they are rather un-palatable. 



The unusual 'Limequat' has ripened into sweet and sour, orbs of juicy goodness. A cross between a lime and a kumquat (Citrus x floridana) I wish that I had enough to make a curd or desert, but I pruned this tree heavily this year, to create a standard. So I only have about a dozen fruit. I save these for drinks, and - ok, I'll just admit it - Cocktails.



Traditional Kumquats such as this Sweet Kumquat 'Meiwa' is one of our favorites, because it no only tastes great, but it produces an abundance of fruit in mid-winter, and who wouldn't appreciate that? I keep about six type of Kumquats, and then added a new one this weekend  from Logee's Greenhouses.

I can't seem to have enough kumquat trees, as eating them warm, straight from the tree reminds me of winter trips to California, and believe me, nothing tastes like a kumquat right off the tree. Forget the store bought ones - they just taste like bitter orange peels. I added a new one to my collection this weekend - 'Changshou' Kumquat (Fortunella obviate 'Fukushu'. The folks at Logee's told us that it is a hard to find variety, they have been working for the past five years to bring it to the US market.], since they feel that it is the best kumquat they have ever grown. It will make a great potted specimen, I was told, so it was selected to be potted in one of my newly acquired antique rolled-rim terra rosa pots.

I lost the tag to this camellia, but it is one of my earliest bloomers. Repotted last year, it has 24 flowers on it. Too bad that they only last a day on the shrub, and then fall off on to the bench. 
 I've become so accustomed to camellias blooming in winter around here, that it's hard to imagine my life without them, but there was a time, before I had the greenhouse, when keeping a camellia seemed impossible. They are just too challenging to keep alive in the house, so unless you have an unheated room which remains cool and bright, or a sunny, porch or entrance way which barely freezes, the camellia may need to only be experienced in southern gardens, or at your local botanic garden.

There was a time when every northern greenhouse kept camellias, handy for last-minute corsages in a time before air travel made imported flowers as common as, well, air travel. The original locavore flower in the winter, they remain uncommon everywhere where they cannot be grown outdoors (south of Zone 9).

'Tama Bambino', one of the popular offspring in the Tama series, a group of offspring from a well known red and white flowered Japanese cross discovered in the wild in 1947 called 'Tama no Ura' after where it was found on Tama-no-ura, Fuku'e Island, Goto archipelago, Nagasaki. This is an anemone double form, with a nice, tight flower that is outfacing.

Camellia's are quickly becoming my darlings - I've added 16 new varieties this fall, as since plants live for 100 years or more, I have visions of eventually donating the trees to a botanic garden someday. Camellias are rather sturdy when grown in a cold greenhouse. They can handle moderate freezes, which means when the heater fails, which it will undoubtedly do at least once every winter, they may be the only plants to survive. Even a hard freeze, as long as it is short lived, will only damage the flower buds for that season. As long as the roots don't freeze for a long period, most camellia's will recover. This helped make the camellia one of the most popular greenhouse and conservatory plants in the 18th and 19th centuries. Talk about heirloom flowers!


'Aye' Aye' Aye', a variegated flower which seems to produce more solid color flowers than it does variegated ones.

January 13, 2016

When I Win Power Ball Tonight, I'm Buying Thompson & Morgan

First, you need to know this: There are two Thompson & Morgan companies. One in the UK, the original, and one in the US and Canada, the portion of the company sold in 2009.

My story began at midnight last night as I was searching on-line for Phlox drummondii seed.

There was a time when I looked forward to the arrival of the Thompson & Morgan seed catalog arriving in the mail, just after Christmas. Throughout the 1980’s, I would spend hours – literally hours - marking up the colorful pages, at least, until I ‘grew up’ horticulturally, and began graduating to the 'hort-porn' hidden within the Heronswood catalog.

Thompson & Morgan wasn't perfect, but boy, they sure did carry an impressive variety of seeds, at the very least, their seedless helped educate me with my botanical Latin, at its best, it taught be how to germinate difficult to grow plants. I was introduced to Saladisi (their version of what eventually became Mesclun), and the catalog carried such 'exotic veggies(at least to us Americans)  to weird vegetables like Courgettes, swede’s. aubergine. Rocket, broad beans and beetroot. Oh, you Brits – so fancy, Mange tout!

Read more of this rant, just click below.

January 11, 2016

A new Year, New Puppies, and, an Anniversary

My friend Glen Lord delivered the best birthday present ever to me - a generous load of antique Italian rolled rim Imprunetta clay pots from an old estate. I never realized that the rolled rim was actually the rim of the clay pot, literally 'rolled over', which really makes them easy to lift.  I am still speechless. The largest one is 14 inches in diameter. Now, I have the difficult task to figure out what to plant in them - thinking about classic woody herbs like rosemary, and maybe some nice camellias.

Yep - It's January 9th, and I am just beginning my second post. I know I am not alone, for a few fellow garden blogger friends are also feeling the stress of catching up. My good friend and neighbor, Rochelle Greayer (of Pith & Vigor, the seasonal and quarterly, and author of the top Amazon rated book - Cultivating Garden Style) admitted in a blog post on January 5th, that she too is trying to catch up.

Rochelle and I did find time to meet for dinner though, twice actually, over the Holiday break and last week, so maybe time itself isn't the issue exactly, maybe the reason we garden bloggers are stalling is because it is still rather unseasonably warm here in the East? Or perhaps, we just all are still recovering from the Holidays? I do know that one reason I am more than a little tired is Daphne's new litter of puppies, which were born over the weekend.

This interspecific Clivia cross give one a good idea of the size of this fine pottery. Look at the big pot behind!!!
Happiest Gardener Ever!

Read more, about these pots and other plants, click below.

January 1, 2016

Will our unseasonably warm winter damage our plants?

Mayflowers for Christmas? It happened this December, but it with this plant, Epigaea repens, it's not completely unheard of - it's just rare. Records show that this has occurred in the past, in particular, in 1776 here in Massachusetts, where the Mayflower is our State wildflower. but what about all of our other plants, trees and shrubs that are blooming during this mild, record-breaking winter?

Here in the Northeastern United States, we are experiencing an unseasonably warm winter, so 'unseasonable', that it's breaking all time records here in Massachusetts. Blame it on El Niño, global warming or just a freak of nature, the truth is, plants are blooming and many gardeners are worried about damage.



Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold's Promise' is variable, blooming early in February during mild winters, but as late as April, after a harsh winter, as we had last year. Never have I seen it bloom outdoors during December, but I suspect that it isn't that unusual, as this is truly a vernal plant, able to burst into bloom after a few days of mild temperatures. I can usually force branches into full bloom in just a week, during mid-January. So I am not worried.


Many of us are worried about our cherry trees which are blooming in December, or our daffodils, spirea or witch hazels which are coming into full bloom many months earlier than their normal blooming time. I too am worried, for in my garden, many shrubs are beginning to open their flowers, particularly those which normally would bloom in late March or April. But I am noticing something - all of the plants which re blooming now are not native. They are all imported species either from Asia or Europe. While our native species may be able to handle this climate shifts, most of the damage seems to affect our ornamentals, most of which come from lands where winter behaves differently than in the already variable climate of the North Eastern US.

We know all too well about this fact. An alpine plant from the high alpine mountain tops in the alps can perish in our coastal Boston gardens, since they are used to a steady, certain period of thawing at snowmelt, never to freeze again until autumn, whilst in the New England garden, said alpine may thaw and refreeze multiple times during the average winter or spring.

We all love winter-blooming hellebores, but this Helleborus niger, purchased as a florist plant for the Holidays, usually fails in our New England garden. I have been able to have some come back for a second or third year, usually blooming during a mild winter around New Years Day, the species usually fails after a hard winter, since it wants to bloom very early, January or February. Rock hard Hard re-freezes are devastating, tearing new roots and destroying the crown.


If you garden in the North East, you know about this sudden death syndrome.  It is not uncommon at all for perennials to emerge at snowmelt, grow a bit with new tender during a mild April or May, only to refreeze, thus tearing their roots, and causing irreparable cellular damage resulting in certain death.

We loose many plants to this pattern of freeze, thaw, refreeze here in the Northern Atlantic states. The Sadly 'perfect spring' rarely occurs. Ironically, last year, we did have the 'perfect spring'. Long, slow and cool, with no killing refreeze. I guess we are paying for this anomaly now with the warmest December in recorded history.

An un identified shrub in the perennial border clearly emerging early, on Christmas day. With no dormant buds to back up this emergence, I fear this shrub may not survive.

Warmer than average winters are not that unusual here in New England, but only rarely have they been truly damaging. Most severe cases are measured through how they affect agricultural crops, most recently, in 2012 when 90 percent of the apple crop was damaged in the northeaster US due to a single freeze in April, and in 1934 more than 3/4's of the apple trees in the Northeast were killed by a warmer than normal winter, which then followed with a cold snap.  I have a photo of our house featured in our local paper in 1934 with the apple trees in bloom during January. This record breaking winter of 1934 was reportedly caused by many of the same factors that caused the infamous dust bowl in the Western US a few years earlier. My father remembers when it 'snowed red' that winter, with snow stained by airborne dust. Many of the Baldwin apple trees were lost in New England during that winter.

Not a good sign at all, for this Spirea thunbergii 'Ogon'. Native to China and Japan, it's not unusual for for this shrub to hold onto it's leaves until late November, it is unusual for it to be emerging into new growth at every bud on New Years Day. Typically an 'early emerger', this full-on burst of new growth before the harshest of winter arrives, may not ensure it's survival in the garden come spring.

Native plants usually survive such periods of warm weather, but this winter is not over yet, and I do wonder how the mild temperatures this year will change our native plants. I mean, 20, 30 or even 100 years of record keeping isn't long when it comes to climate change. But we are breaking 300 year records, still small perhaps, but I do begin to worry when I see things like multiple records being broken in just ten years. In 1995 we experienced a late frost which killed many of our native oaks and ash trees - I remember this damage, since Christopher Lloyd was visiting here, speaking at Tower Hill Botanic Garden during that freeze in May. Cold snaps and odd late freezes are one thing, but warm winters that cause entire populations of native trees to bloom off season is another. Let's hope this only affects our imported species.

Even in the greenhouse, plants are early. This camellia is mimicking what is happening in North Carolina right now - blooming before New Years Day. Still, it's an early blooming variety from Japan which usually starts for us around Christmas Day.

So whether this year's mild weather is the result of long-tern climate changes or not, we all know that there are some troubling signs in our own gardens. Personally, I am thrilled that my heating bill for the greenhouse has been practically nil so far, but those gains may be offset by plant loss around my garden. Facebook abounds with images of freaky, blooming things out-of-season.

Buds, such as these on Rhododendron x narcissiflora are emerging, or at least, swelling. I am not certain if they are tender enough to cause damage, but given that one of the parents of this cross is R. luteum from Europe, it may be confused and beginning to emerge from dormancy? It's demise may be best, since we keep honeybees, and the nectar of  R. luteum contains grayanotoxin - toxic honey is never good for human consumption.


To those who keep records about such things, it's all more than alarming. Climatologists know the numbers.  If we kept records in our own gardens, we might, and should be alarmed as well. Even short term. Lilacs are blooming on average, four days earlier than they did in the 1960's, according to David Wolfe, a Cornell Department of Horticulture professor who pointed out in a 2007 article that cultivated crops such as grapes and apples are blooming on average, six to eight days earlier now than just thirty years ago. Mr. Wolff focuses on how climate change is affecting agriculture, where many crops are migrating northward in an effort to improve growing conditions. It doesn't matter if you believe in climate change or not, it's happening either way.

There are some helpful resources for you to not only follow, but to participate with. Project Budburst allows you to enter information about what is happening in your own backyard and garden plus offers lots of other features. It's sponsored by he National Science Foundation. Some of the reports on Project Budburst reinforces my thoughts about how our native plants are able to handle such mild winters as we are experiencing this year.

Many Daphne species bloom through the winter, but typically, not here in Zone 5. This Daphne transatlantic has bloomed during all 12 months, when it is mild, but it's also not native to North America. Flower buds remain closed until temperatures are mild, when they open.

This year has been more challenging for forecasters though, even though we were being told that this epic El Niño was over due. Besides, the West needed rain, the mountains are grateful for the snow, as are the skiers in Colorado and Utah. Here in the Northeast, forecasting how this winter may layout has been more challenging, even though scientists have learned so much recently. There are other factors beyond El Niño which complicate things.A cold, deeply frozen winter in Siberia can affect the Jet Stream in Canada and Northern North America. Arctic Oscillation can mean a colder and snowier winter in the North East, but this year is more complicated, since we are experiencing both a snowy, cold arctic Siberian winter and a strong El Niño. How it will play out remains to be seen.


In my garden, I am noticing that the plants which are emerging early are mostly Asian species. Native plants seem to be better with dealing with warm autumns and unseasonable weather like this. I feel that this autumn started off with a bad sign - and earlier and harder frost than what was considered normal occurred in early October. Frost, temperatures just below freezing usually triggers a chemical reaction in the petioles of leaves on trees, blocking chlorophyll from being produced, leaving behind other chemical pigments which provide our bright, colorful autumn foliage of reds, orange and yellow here in New England.

Our earlier than normal deep freeze, was so cold (below 24 deg. F) froze the leaves and killed them in their green state, before they had a change to slowly progress to a colorful state. Most remained on the trees until they faded into a pale olive brown, and then finally fell. Asian trees, such as Japanese Maples, Himalayan Birches and Stewartia kept their brown, dried foliage until late November, the petioles unable to release their leaves without the proper maturity. Many berried shrubs such as the bright violet berries on callicarpa were so damaged that they rotted on the branches, while the foliage, which typically would turn yellow and drop after a light frost, simply remain on the branches in their damaged, brown state. Many are still holding onto their leaves.

After that initial hard freeze in early October, the temperatures in Massachusetts have remain mild since early October, only now, this week around the New Year, dropping again to 18-20 degrees. December 2015 was the hottest in recorded history, with every day averaging about average. The plants, in particular, the Asian species are not handling the mild weather well. Most are beginning to sprout, with buds which should be dormant, emerging on Stewartia, Deutzia, Spirea and Hamamelis.

Not all is doom and gloom however, since most native species seem to have remained dormant in our gardens, but the jury is still our with our imported plants species. Sadly, most of our garden plants today are not native, (perhaps the best reason of all for using more native plants in our landscape?) Non natives, be they lilacs, Spirea, apples, Japanese Maples, hydrangeas even the newly available lace-leaved elderberries with purple or golden foliage, can be damaged or killed.

A purple lace-leaf Elderberry, so stylish in the garden may be emerging too early. This European native is showing elongated growth during late December, which is never a good thing in our zone 5 Massachusetts garden. Although temperatures have hovered near 60 degrees for most of the month, we are forecast to get 18 deg. F next week. I fear that I may loose this import, while our native elderberry plants remain dormant.

 Elderberries are particularly susceptible to warmer than average winters since they form their dormant buds earlier in the late summer, and they are not used to our uncertain winter temperatures, which may spend a few weeks near 70 degrees F, then drop to a frigid, killing 10 degrees overnight, only to rise again to a balmy 65 degrees.

Some elderberry buds like these, may remain dormant through this winter, but my fingers are crossed.

Most at risk are those perennials which typically emerge at snow melt. We have enough problems with them in the spring, when an early emergence followed by a hard freeze kills many of our beloved garden perennials, but even in January, an early emerging Helleborus nigra can face death with a hard, colder than average winter, without snow cover. I expect to looks many plants this year, in particular some Spirea and Elderberries which have been motivated to emerge 5 months early.

Native plants respond to day length more than they do temperature, so most of our wild plants will be safe, but we should keep our fingers crossed that Asian agricultural crops such as apples, pears and cherries do not bloom before truly cold weather arrives, or we risk loosing much more than some garden flowers.

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