“What is so rare as a day in June” … wrote James Russell Lowell in the 19th century.
I had always thought he was British, or perhaps Irish, for his extolling a month like June. Well, it usually is better than July or August, and that is about the best connotation we can think of here in the United States. Lowell indeed was born in this country, but at least in some less miserable heat location than we have to endure between late May and late October, New England to wit.
Those months, and fractions of them, are so beset here with humidity that clings on to a person like a portable sauna that a sweat bath after a few minutes of simple weeding, even in early morning, makes for sweat hogs like me to have to endure the ticks and chiggers that go with the territory to make even a dent in the mulberry weed.
So be it. It isn’t going to change, except possibly for the worse, with global warming, now disguised as “climate change.”
All that to say this. There comes a month, May to wit, when inevitably there is a lull in flower. What’s worse, this generally follows a spring loaded with color. Tons of dogwoods, azaleas, spring perennials and a glut of other things in March and April slough off into a foliage picture in May. Gardens are still attractive in May, but they were better in early spring and will be better in high summer, i.e. a fewweeks from now, when such as summer phloxes, hydrangeas, perennial sunflowers, and others, not to speak of annuals, coming to the fore, will reignite the color show after the May lull, which sometimes continues into June.
So we are stuck with finding enough varied kinds of foliage to make do for a few weeks. Our beds and borders have morphed from full sun settings to a lot of shade during the 47 years we have been tilling in our garden. It has been almost imperceptible, but here we are with more shade.
Hostas have been the leader of the pack in the rebuilding phase of our garden in the past few years. Their attributes are notable. Some few have decent and fragrant flowers, but the paddle leaves are the thing, from dwarfs a few inches tall to giant specimens with leaves two feet long and almost as wide.
Foliage colors range from bright yellow — some with red stems — to steel blue and variations on the theme with yellow, blue or green leaves edged with white or yellow. There’s no way that they can’t draw attention.
Then, standing head high or more, there are the big cannas. Though their flowers aren’t the most flamboyant on the street, their leaves make up for it, some green, some almost black and, again, variegations of several colors. Though cannas are usually recommended for full sun, I have found light shade is all right too.
We have counted our cannas as winter hardy for years, though this winter we lost several varieties in the ground. Why?
Some foliage shrubs will take a lot of shade, and a few of these will produce flowers as well. Abelias, with the common glossy abelia as the fountainhead, are almost evergreen and produce little white funnels of flowers that are magnets for butterflies. There are several variegated ones and some with yellow leaves. The best of these for me has been the variety ‘Francis Mason,’ an old-timer with yellow leaves and abundant flowers, even in part shade.
The ones with highly variegated leaves have escaped my best efforts.
A neat little shrub with flexible branches that do yeoman duty in spilling over a wall is the box honeysuckle — not your everyday honeysuckle — but botanically Lonicera nitida. Yellow leaved forms of this, including ‘Baggeson’s Gold,’ are available, and I have two or three specimens. The little leaves are indeed like a boxwood’s.
It is evergreen and easy to grow. This is just a smattering of plants that can fill the May lull.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.