April can be cruel, gratifying
Posted: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 8:02 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
April exudes spring. Most of the time, that is. One famous essayist termed April the cruelest month. It can be. When one of those arctic fronts slips down the right coast and we get the east wind backlash from a high pressure area off the cold Atlantic, it can put the damper on the most enthusiastic among us.
Some of the worst devastating and disappointing frost damage has occurred in April. Just two years ago, to wit, an April freeze with temperatures in the teens turned into mush and stubble all kinds of spring jewels.
Among the most serious of the casualties were Japanese maples. They are notoriously subject to damage when young leaves have barely unfolded. In the 2008 case, not only were leaves destroyed, but whole plants, some of them several years old. They aren’t cheap, and it was a costly experience, both in terms of dollars but, most importantly, in years of time lost.
April, on the other hand, holds in its hand spring’s essence. Up until now, color has been in fits and starts, a splash of daffodils here, a glaring quince or magnolia there. Look for more color this month, particularly when dogwood, redbud and azalea season kicks in.
Meantime, there is, as we speak, a corylopsis, or winter hazel, in full chartreuse glory in our front garden. This one is Corylopsis spicata, the spike winterhazel. I don’t see any spikes on it, but the racemes of inch-wide flowers hang down in strands some three or four inches from the branches. With the gentle color, maybe more cream than chartreuse, it is the epitome of what a spring shrub or tree should be.
Winter hazels, not to be confused with witch hazels (we have those too, already bloomed out, features during January and February), corylopsis is an easy plant. It prefers good soil and drainage (what doesn’t?) but will subsist on less. The specimen of which we speak is a spreading little tree to maybe 12 feet tall and wider than that. I have selectively pruned it up and out; otherwise, it would be more congested and smaller.
The corylopsis coincides with a star magnolia, Magnolia stellata, at the other end of the front yard and an old fashioned quince across the driveway. The latter is perhaps 33 years old and has suckered and spread to 15 feet or more across, producing in abundance the pinky-orange flowers the species is noted for.
Not much younger, the magnolia, with chalk white flowers, has, like the winterhazel, been pruned up and out. It is perhaps 20 feet tall and almost as wide.
Another magnolia, this time Magnolia soulangeana, blares forth across the way with bubble-gum pink flowers eight inches across. A larger tree, to 30 feet or more, it produces enormous bloom every year. Alas, spring frosts knock them out about one year out of four, on average.
These are plentiful as fleas on a speckled pup about town. One of the largest and oldest is in my cousin’s garden on Greenacres Drive. Joan Stevens lives there in the house built by her great-grandfather. The tree was planted by her great-grandmother, Lucy Williams, in the 1950s. It, fortuitously, stands alongside a white star magnolia, variety Dr. Merrell, which her Granny also planted.
April is indeed to be enjoyed, but also respected. Enjoy what we can, while we can, but don’t cry in your milk when things go awry.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 4.6.10
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path