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

Jimmy Williams

We discussed here last week some plants that offer late fall and winter color. I used one of my borders in our back garden to illustrate the point that winter, including the generally detested month of January, can offer some real gems that stand out in an otherwise brown and gray landscape. 

Let us delve deeper today in the subject. Plants that offer winter color can provide it in berries, leafage, and even brightly colored stems. 

To the left and right of our upper driveway stand two varieties of mahonia, or Oregon holly. They are not hollies, but there is some bit of resemblance in their spiny evergreen leaves. They in no obvious way resemble barberries, but, strangely, they are close kin. Break a stem of a mahonia and it will be bright yellow, and so will the stems of barberries.

On the right of the drive and near a parking area is a covey of the most commonly seen mahonia in these parts, Mahonia bealei, with outsize evergreen leaves that, in sun, will sometimes bleach to a dirty color, but in shade seldom does. 

Flowers on long (to 1-foot) stems, shooting from the top of the shrubs at about 6-8 feet off the ground, brighten up the late winter scene and are visible at quite a distance. These are followed by large bright blue berries in clusters that resemble bunches of concord grapes. These are edible though tart, and are said to make into a fine jelly. Birds relish the berries and, consequently, seedlings are often found at quite a distant from their parents. 

On the opposite side of the drive is a different variety of mahonia, I think ‘Marvel,’ which has smaller, less vicious leaves, and similar bright yellow flowers, but with the advantage of flowering earlier, from December into January, for a full month if not sullied by very low temperatures. It also has a better form, not as leggy as the stemmy Bealei. We have at least three of these in different areas and all have prospered. 

One caveat: ‘Marvel’ is marginally hardy here, and zero temperatures will maim it seriously, though it generally comes back from the ground. 

Sited in shade, which it prefers, in our woodland is Chinese rice paper plant, a large shrub that is botanically Edgeworthia chrysantha. It is a native of the Far East, and grows to some 8 feet tall and more than that wide if unhindered. Even before it flowers, about late January into February here, it is covered with large white buds that stand out in the winter, particularly since it is deciduous. 

These buds open gradually into clusters of white flowers, each cluster centered with yellow. The fragrance is heart-stopping and will, on a damp day, permeate the air for many yards around. Not common in nurseries, a search will be required. A fine specimen is located at the home of Pat and Rachel Terrell on Walnut Street, and fortunately where it can be seen from the street. 

Most nurseries carry, in early spring, red-twig and yellow-twig dogwood shrubs, not to be confused with dogwood trees. 

The new growth of the year is a bright red or yellow and “sells on sight,” as the saying goes. 

Unfortunately, some of these are subject to a canker disease in the south, though not bothered in cooler climates. Do some homework before you buy and study up on the best varieties.

A larger plant with exceptional winter stems is the coral bark Japanese maple, which can grow to 20 feet or more. The stems of this tree are, for sure, a coral color on younger twigs and smaller branches. After some years, the tree, and the dogwood shrubs already mentioned, can be pruned back in spring to get the best twig color, which occurs on new growth. 


From Poor Willie’s Almanack — You can’t see all this from in front of a hearth fire. 


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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