For me, winter is over when the first blossoms of the new season appear. Any winter weather that follows is just a setback, nature's way of slowing things down to let us more fully appreciate the unfolding of spring.
Confused by El Nino, my first witch hazel bloomed on Dec. 22, just one day after winter officially began on the calendar. Opting to count the aberration as the first bloom of the new season rather than the last bloom of the old, winter in my garden lasted exactly 24 hours this year. A new record.Western Pennsylvania records among the fewest days of winter sunshine as anyplace in the country. Witch hazels help to counter the effects of all that grayness, so I started to collect them soon after I moved here.
More than any other flowering tree, witch hazels represent the onset of the new year. In my collection of 14 varieties - meager compared to the number available - bloom is usually continuous from late January until the first of May.
Witch hazels aren't bold enough for many gardeners, although the genus Hamamelis does seem to be gaining popularity. Small spidery blossoms tuck in close to the leafless branches. But in shades of yellow and burnt orange, the curled petals can put on a respectable show, especially since there's nothing for them to compete with this time of year. A dusting of snow on the ground enhances their subtle beauty.
Use witch hazel as a large shrub or small tree in the early spring landscape. Its open, rather irregular silhouette gently accents natural plantings or anchors a shrub border; but when carefully pruned, witch hazel can be lovely in a formal setting as well.
Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) is ready to bloom, too. It's too early, to be sure, but the precious perennial has also succumbed to El Nino's seductive ways.
The blooms may yet be OK, protected by recycled Christmas tree boughs. But January is about a month before the chartreuse spikes usually appear, and there's a good chance they'll be zapped.
Such is the risk of pushing hardiness to its limits. More often than not, at least some of these early spring bloomers will be thwarted by a cold snap. Who cares? For me, it just heightens their appeal.
At the corner of the perennial border, the February daphne (Daphne mezereum) is also thinking about spring. It has never bloomed in February before (usually late March in my Zone 5b garden), but the buds are swelling.
February daphne probably will never have a companion to bloom with, for no other plant in the border is stirring. Dianthus offers blue-gray foliage, however, and the evergreen leaves of candytuft are doing what they can to create a "composition."
But the star is the daphne itself. Stiff vertical branches on this diminutive three-foot shrub will soon be covered by bright rosy-purple blossoms. So prolific are the flowers, with no leaves yet in sight, that the twigs will look like solid wands of color. Early visitors to my garden are always amazed.
The shame of February daphne is that it's virtually unavailable in the trade. Nurserymen claim it's difficult to propagate. Hogwash. Yes, cuttings may be hard to root, but seeds germinate readily (sow them in June before they're fully ripe). The ground underneath my February daphne is strewn with seedlings, which should come true to type when they're old enough to bloom, since Daphne mezereum is a true species.
To call Abeliophyllum distichum by its common name of "white forsythia" is to do it a grave disservice. It would imply that the shrub is big and blowsy, tough and common. Abeliophyllum is none of those; its delicate white flowers bear a passing resemblance to those of Forsythia, hence the stretch.
This is a plant for gardeners who truly cherish early spring color and are willing to suffer considerable grief to get it. Odds are better than ever that the flower buds will be frozen as they swell. Escaping that, a cold blast will likely cut short the brief bloom period.
But one year out of five, Abeliophyllum enchants. The rest of the time it's sort of a nondescript green, rather rangy in habit, just taking up space. It's secret is secure with those who grow and love it.
Like Abeliophyllum, winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) also blooms too early for its own darn good. Try it anyway, especially south of Zone 5, where its buds are more reliably hardy.
As a small tree, Corylopsis quickly assumes an interesting shape; call it "character." As broad as it is tall (9-10 feet), with a flat top, the trunk and stems appear gnarled with age. This trait often earns it mention on "plants for winter interest" lists.
Naturalized beneath it in our woods are tiny white and yellow species crocus, which would look smashing with it if the pale yellow catkin-like flowers of Corylopsis could just escape the spring frosts.
Finally for the winter-weary there is winter jasmine, a plant that follows its own inner time clock. Supple green stems politely drape over a stone wall out back (they won't climb like a vine). Ever so often, on a warm day between December and March, a few bright yellow flowers will pop open, tiny beacons, pointing the way toward spring. Sadly, they're not fragrant, but it hardly matters at all.