Winters in Ohio sometimes seem harsh to plant-loving garden and landscape enthusiasts, with biting winds, often gray skies, and the occasional snow covering the grounds-eye view of the plantscape. Our green imagination is sometimes hard to channel.
A few walks in the last two weeks, though, reminded me that there is much to enjoy. Consider the American beech with its pointy buds and remnants of last year’s beechnuts still visible, wonderful to see, even highlighted against a barren winter sky. Summery beaches are still far away, but wintry beeches? You do not have to go far to see trees such as these: Johnson Woods Nature Preserve near Orrville, Seiberling Naturealm in the Metro Parks near Akron, or even the rest area between Delaware and Columbus on Route 71.
American beeches also have “marcescent” leaves; like many oaks, some of last season’s leaves remain until spring, golden and sylvan foliar reminders of seasons past.
Of course there are other leaves of great attraction now too, that of evergreen plants. These include broadleaved evergreens such as American holly and rhododendron, and rhododendron even has fat flower buds now that foretell spring color displays.
Most prominent, of course, are our narrow-leaved evergreen conifers, from pines with their needles bundled in twos, threes and fives, and spruces with single needles that are square or three-edged, to hemlocks and firs with their flat needles and lines of gas-exchange stomates on the needle undersides. These evergreens also sport brown cones to contrast with their green foliage.
Blue spruces right now add a special wintry look with their foliage giving a deep-freeze blue-ice look to the landscape. One of my favorite spruces, though, is oriental spruce with its tiny green needles and narrow cones growing in clusters on the branches.
There are flowers too, of course, though it seems hard to imagine this time of year. While in Columbus this past week, cold-loving pansies were doing quite well, and the winter witch-hazel bloom season is now under way. For witch hazel their ribbon-like flower petals will crinkle up and then expand depending on the temperatures for the next several months.
And, at Secrest Arboretum this past week, our old lawncare fellow traveler, dandelion, reared its sunny golden flowerheads. Also in the Arboretum was a combination living outdoors arrangement of two intertwined plants, with pieris flower buds for springtime to come, matched with the brown dried flowers of hydrangea from summer and fall.
Finally, do not forget winter fruits. My bright red winterberry holly fruits have finally all been harvested by the birds, but we still have a few remaining sprigs on arrangements in the house. Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) also provide our plant selection lesson for the day, something to contemplate as we wait for spring and consider our plant purchases to enhance the landscape.
Many know that in order to have fall and winter fruits for these hollies, you need both male and female winterberry hollies in your landscape. That is because winterberry, as with most hollies, are “dioecious” (two houses), bearing male and female flowers on separate plants.
But will any male and female combination result in fruit? Not exactly. For example, a good plant selection decision for winterberry hollies is a planting with ‘Jim Dandy’ males to be matched with ‘Red Sprite’ female cultivars. These two hollies flower at the same time. The pollen is produced and disseminated by insects at the same time that the ‘Red Sprite’ winterberry hollies have stigmas that are receptive to pollen. These two cultivars are in sync, pollination and fertilization is successful and fruit development occurs.
‘Jim Dandy’ is a good male for pollination of northern provenance winterberries such as ‘Red Sprite’ and ‘Afterglow.’ But ‘Jim Dandy’ is not synchronized with southern provenance winterberries such as ‘Sparkleberry’ and ‘Winter Gold.’ For these, the male cultivar ‘Southern Gentleman’ is more in synchrony, producing pollen at the right time.
So plant selection decisions are critical on many levels. Winterberry holly is good for wet sites. Its main ornamental appeal, though, is its colorful fall and winter fruits, and to have fruits you need both male and female cultivars, but not just any combination of male and female cultivars. Now that’s horticulture!
Jim Chatfield is a horticultural educator with Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about caring for your garden, write: Jim Chatfield, Plant Lovers’ Almanac, Ohio State University Extension, 1680 Madison Ave., Wooster, OH 44691. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.