Lenten roses create bright spots in my winter garden. Even on the coldest January day, I will see some of their nodding flowers appear. And by mid-February, almost every plant produces shoots that range from pure white to various shades of pastel blooms. The colors actually show in the plant’s sepals during the flowering season rather than in its petals. I am particularly fond of the old-fashioned Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis), not only because it’s very easy to grow, but also because it seeds readily and gives us new plants with slight variations of the typical white sepals.
Many people don’t realize that the Lenten rose is not really a rose but is instead part of the buttercup family. Therefore, it’s important not to treat it like a rose. The Lenten rose prefers light to heavy shade locations. And while rich soil is a key to success for some plants, the Lenten rose is very happy with fertile, well-drained soil. Once established, it can take dry conditions to some degree. When cold weather arrives, some of my friends remove all of its foliage to increase the flower display since the plant is less than a foot tall. I prefer to simply prune out the dead and damaged foliage because I think its course leaves are a nice contrast to the delicate blossoms.
Wintertime is also when I like to enjoy cut camellias indoors. Camellias tend to bloom when we are not experiencing freezing weather. Once cut, the blossoms often fall off the cut stems in a day or two, regardless of how you condition them, so they only bring short-lived beauty to your interiors. For the best result, I try to cut the flowers when they are almost open and then provide some type of support beyond their own stems to keep them from falling off. A good way to do this is by using flower picks filled with water and laying the blooms down for display. A Charleston camellia vase works perfectly for floating the blossoms, but any shallow dish will also do. Sometimes I will cut the blossoms right before an event and simply lay them in a trug. They will hold up without water for three to four hours
Winter gardens in our area can also have an abundance of blooms with sweet scents, but these flowering plants are not necessarily showstoppers. Winter honeysuckle, with its clear to pale-yellow flowers, brings fragrance to my garden on most winter days. For an even stronger, perfume-like scent, try winter daphne. Other popular flowers with cold-weather scents include winter jasmine, some early daffodils, edgeworthia, and wintersweet.
For a twist on my traditional gardening tasks, I sometimes like to grow calla lilies indoors during the winter. I usually order the rhizomes from John Scheepers or Brent and Becky’s Bulbs to get the best quality. I plant them in a good potting mix, water them well, and place them in a sunny spot inside. If you don’t have a window with plenty of sunlight, place the plant in the brightest spot you have with some additional light from a fixture if possible. When planting the big white or yellow flowering calla lilies, expect the large, arrow-shaped leaves to appear within a week or two and the large bloom stalks in a month or so. While their blooms are sensational, the foliage is big, bold, and attractive as well. Keep in mind that they like damp, not wet, soil. When mine are finished blooming, I allow the pots to dry out and the foliage to die. Then, after the last frost date in the spring, I plant them in my garden where they can get plenty of moisture. They will usually bloom again in mid-summer and for many years thereafter.
Whether you are enjoying the outdoor scents and flowers of your winter garden or the indoor beauty of potted plants, the winter season provides plenty of blooming beauty—if you look carefully.
Floyd’s To-Do List: January/February
Roses need attention in February. Whether you grow the hybrid types or the drift, carpet, or knockout types, now is the time to remove all dead leaves from the plants. If you have a dense variety, use a blower to help make sure all the leaves have come off. Once the leaves are off, remove all the mulch and dropped leaves and replace with fresh, new mulch. This will limit diseases, such as blackspot, that really reduce the beauty of the plants. You can also shape and prune the plants as needed. Be sure to wait until the danger of frost has passed to fertilize the plants.
This is the perfect time to prune and repair deciduous trees. It’s best to remove the crossed branches and damaged limbs first. Then stand back and observe the tree. Remove limbs that have created an awkward shape or are hanging too low. Be sure you don’t leave stubs from cut limbs.
Don’t stop watering your planted containers during cold weather. If the containers freeze, the water will be cut off from the plants. I always try to water before a hard freeze. This will provide the needed water, and the water also helps insulate the plant from the cold to some degree.
Go ahead and plant deciduous shrubs now. If you order bare root plants or buy package plants, soak the roots in water for several hours prior to planting. Dig big holes, and plant with the roots spread out in the holes. Use a good soil mix with some of the dirt from the dug hole included, as long as it’s not clay. Plant at the same level as the plant was in the ground before it was dug for sale. Pack soil well around the roots. Water well and mulch.
Winged elm, red stemmed Japanese maple, corky sweetgum branches, and beech tree limbs with their papery brown leaves still attached make excellent winter arrangements for indoors. They can be beautiful alone or mixed with evergreens and/or flowers. If you are not adding foliage or flowers, there is no need to add water to the vase when arranging.
John Floyd has been gardening in the Birmingham area for more than 30 years. In addition to his day-to-day experience, John has degrees in horticulture from Auburn and Clemson Universities and was editor-in-chief of Southern Living. For daily tips and more garden information, visit birminghamgardeningtoday.com.