Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Season Begins

April is always slow to arrive, or so it seems. The few warm days we expect in March often bow low before temperatures more suitable to February. But we know there are better days in store.

In city gardens, despite hazards of shade, soot and poor soil, spring-flowering shrubs can be depended on to bloom year after year.  This is the month to appreciate the much-maligned forsythia, the overlooked deutzia, the obscure enkianthus, and the increasingly popular oak-leaf hydrangea.

Need anyone describe Forsythia x intermedia?  Welcomed in spring for its brilliant show of yellow when there is nothing else, it is then loathed for much of the rest of the year for its unruly behavior.  All it needs is a little annual attention to become a model citizen.  After blooming, thin it and shape it.  Too often it is sheared at the top, doing nothing for its disposition.  It tends to grow in tangled branches, but if you sort them out patiently, cut back the old canes and thin the rest you will be rewarded with a graceful, grateful shrub.  My favorite variety is ‘Lynwood.’  It has the brightest yellow flowers, and the blooms are distributed more evenly along the length of the branch.

Deutzia gracilis
I met my first Deutzia in Washington, D.C.  It was a cloud of white blossoms providing background for a bench, underpinning for a pergola, and illuminating a corner, all on its own.  I think it was Deutzia gracilis, Slender deutzia, a broad, low shrub that more than earns its keep. The flowers are a pure white, and the two- to four- foot height allows placement in and among perennials or shrubs or on its own as a mass planting.  I have no idea why it is not more widely used here.

Enkianthus campanulatus, Red-veined enkianthus, is wonderful both in youth and in maturity.  As a young plant its habit is narrow and upright, but as it matures it becomes open and layered.  Its leaves are a beautiful blue-green and the pendant flowers creamy and, of course red-veined, although if you search hard enough you will find offspring with white flowers.  It partners with other acid-loving plants and is handsome when planted in beds with rhododendrons, ferns and azaleas.  It requires no effort on your part to keep it in check or in balance.  It manages well on its own while giving an additional gift of brilliant fall color.

After years of admiring the strength of Hydrangea quercifolia, Oak-leaf hydrangea, in public parks I took the plunge last year and bought a few for the Catskills’ garden.  It has all the virtues: toughness, slow-growing, long-blooming, tolerant of deep shade and acid soil.  The foliage is glorious, turning bronze in autumn.   The blooms are large and last for several weeks.  They start out creamy in the early spring, turning rosy pink and then deepening as the season progresses.  It is a big and bold plant, not for the faint of heart.  It can hold its own anywhere -- alone, or in a mixed border, or along the edge of a woodland  -- to great effect in all locations.

Canada Mayflower
The greening of grass is another sure sign that spring is here.  The great urban parks, Central and Prospect, which you can have almost to yourself all winter, fill up in a day after the grass turns green.  The periwinkle will soon be in bloom; Vinca minor remains a dependable groundcover long after its blue flowers are gone, although some purists now find it invasive.   If you walk through High Rock on Staten Island and keep your eyes on the ground, by mid-April you will see the Canada mayflower, Maianthemum, poke through its winter blanket of oak leaves.  It sends up shiny furled leaf tips that will open to carpet the woodland floor.  The blooms are tiny white spires, but its showiest role is as a beautiful glossy-green groundcover.  

April is a good month for walking through the woodland and natural areas of New York City.  You will have very little company, other than the emerging ephemerals, those glories of the early season.

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