With the arrival of April, it is assumed winter is past. Well, April Fool. I read of a little girl who was asked when winter would be over. She said that her neighbor would plant his garden first, then it would freeze. He would plant it again, and again it would freeze. Then he would plant it a third time, and that was when winter was over.
She wasn’t far off. Most truck farmers, as a matter of fact, don’t plant their market crops until May. So hold back as long as you can.
The poet Ogden Nash had this to say about winter:
Smooth and clean and frosty white.
The world looks good enough to bite.
That’s the season to be young
Catching snowflakes on your tongue.
Poppycock and balderdash, for want of cruder phrases. Yes, if we have a one-inch sticky snow on Christmas Eve, we’re all agog, especially if it only sticks on the grass and not on the streets. Truth to say, as Nash put it, winter is for kids.
To put it more accurately, by April Fool’s Day we are only on the cusp of spring, and forget where the earth is in relation to the sun. We hope for no more frosts, but it is a nebulous hope.
The thing to do right now is enjoy what you can while you can. For instance, have you even noticed the greening of the underwood in our forests? The “downy green” we have at the very first shows up artfully with the sullen grays and browns in the background. And surely you couldn’t have missed the oriental magnolias in white, pink and purple that have been around for a couple of weeks now.
Even the more subtle sarvis trees with their understated and brief frothy white flowers are, as we speak, already on the wane. Friend Bill Moody made a special effort a couple of weeks ago to phone me they were flowering in his part of eastern Henry County. I immediately took notice, but, alas, the large number of them in the woods behind the Sonic Drive-In have been obliterated by the ogres of destruction, bulldozers. Now it’s all mud and big puddles. That’s progress, as most define it.
Don’t forget the corylopsis, if you have one. You probably don’t. Our one specimen is of the species spicata, commonly called spike winterhazel. It cranks up in mid-March with little dangles of pale chartreuse or cream. Said to grow to eight feet or so by perhaps the same width, ours is now some 20 feet wide or more.
It is located near the street, where it stops traffic for three weeks or so in March. No foolin’. It is a relative of witch hazel, most of which flower even earlier.
Then there are the aforementioned magnolias, which are apt to flower before the last frosts and are caught out. Our pink one is Magnolia soulangeana, a species. and it got the frost treatment some weeks ago, which doomed it to a few frost-nipped blooms that were sullied to a considerable degree.
There are named varieties of the early magnolias, some in a series with girls’ names, i.e. ‘Jane,’ ‘Betty’ etc., which flower just a bit later, but enough later to avoid some of the freezes. Our ‘Jane’ and ‘ Betty’ are just going out as we speak. They managed to come through unscathed.
Then there is ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia, and one fine plant it is. Flowers are late enough to avoid freezes most, but not all, years. They are a pale chartreuse, and the tree grows much taller than the others mentioned, which can be large shrubs. Our ‘Elizabeth’ is some 40 feet tall or more after only 15 years or so, a vigorous grower and dependable bloomer most years. Frost has been a problem only a few times in its life. There are other cream to yellow varieties around now.
Flowering cherries take the spotlight in March, barring freezes. We have an unknown specimen on a vacant lot next door, which I got somewhere as a bargain and stuck the little thing there, not realizing what a show it would some day make. It is much wider than tall, and the flowers are a pale pink, more arresting than that description would indicate. Against the background of a dark woodland and some evergreen southern magnolias, the flowers are sensational, if I do say so.
So, now on to the color blasts of April.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.