True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

Here we are a full month past the solstice and almost that much after Christmas. Well, what to talk about? Christmas bloomers.

No, not the kind with hearts on them women wear, if they still do.

I’m talking about three (at least) things that were blooming outside and unaided at Tennessee Dixter on the late lamented Christmas Day.

I made my morning stroll on Christmas, seeking something — anything — that might have eased into flower over the past few days that had escaped my prying eyes.

Just back of a shed down hill from the house, there it was. My “autumn”-blooming flowering cherry that was presenting a post-season offering.

This is Prunus subhirtella  ‘Autumnalis.’ The cultivar name indicates its autumn flowering time, though in our climate, it is most often winter.

Dec. 25 is barely winter, astronomically speaking, with the cold season creeping in on Dec. 21. At any rate this cherry was in full bloom on Christmas, or at least as full as it gets.

The flowers are a wan pink, nearly white, and show up at no great distance. But, so what? Any woody plant that will perform on Christmas and other near days is something to treasure.

Prunus subhirtella itself is a naturally occurring hybrid in some parts of the world, particularly the Orient.

The most common name of the wild form is Higan cherry, one of numerous Japanese and Chinese flowering cherries that have been popular for years.

One variety is used in the famous tidal basin planting in Washington, D.C.

The autumn flowering one, however, is not as well-known. My two trees have an interesting history. One was planted maybe 20 years ago and grew into a stellar specimen of perhaps 25 feet.

A bad tree was cut nearby a few years ago and fell smack dab into it, crushing it asunder. Well, that’s that, I thought.

Lo and behind, from the stump left behind, one sprout came up, then another about 8 feet away from a root. Both survived and miraculously were true to the mother tree.

They are well on the way to achieving the expected height of perhaps 30 feet.

The Higan cherry is more trouble-free than some others of the genus. Most, including plums, peaches and edible cherries, are subject to various diseases and other problems.

If  you can find an ‘Autumnalis,’ my advice is to buy it and plant it in sun or part shade.

About 50 feet away from the cherry, I came upon another winter blooming woody plant. It is wintersweet, botanically Chimonanthus praecox.

This is a gangly small tree or large shrub that certainly is not of specimen material, but, again, so what if it blooms on Christmas and thereabouts.

The name says it all. It is winter blooming and the flowers smell very sweet. In fact, the aroma is what usually tips one off that it is in bloom.

Flowering time is relatively lengthy, since the cold keeps the little half-inch wide flowers from drying too soon.

The frail things will take down to at least 20 degrees, and, if early ones are frozen, others soon take their place.

A few of the wan yellow blooms brought into a warm room will scent up quite an area.

This is another Oriental jewel, one of numerous ornamental plants to come from Asia and Japan.

No. 3 on my Christmas list was a bulb, the “common” snowdrop, of the genus Galanthus. It is not as common here as in other places, but my few (maybe 30) have survived a long time.

The tiny white flowers can go into bloom even in some of the coldest weather.

In fact, I usually have a few before Christmas, as early as late November some years, but this time, the first one was spotted on Christmas Day.

I had been watching a few buds for days, waiting for the first one to open.

Bulbs are easily available by mail order, but they don’t store as well as, say, daffodils or crocuses, so there will be some failures.

If you order some next fall, be sure you get them into the ground as soon as possible.

Happy February (a little early) to all! The hated month will surely provide more flowers.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at  642-1162.

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