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February 2007

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Plump buds, ‘Rijnveld's Early Sensation' and Valentine's Day

January and February are full of promise. Many shrubs and trees formed their flower buds last autumn or even in August and these give life to the garden. Magnolias festooned in furry buds are almost as attractive as magnolias in flower and a border of rhododendrons with varied leaf colours and shapes and plump flower buds fairly pulsates with life during the winter months. One of my favourites is Rhododendron bureavii (shown) with leaves that are shiny dark green above with tawny suede-like indumentum underneath and which prompted my grandchildren Andrew and Rachel to nickname it ‘The Teddy Bear Tree'. The very pale pink flowers won't open until May but the rounded rust-coloured buds are captivating just now. The polished leaves of camellias and their pointed flower buds are also full of promise.

Just after the New Year I look out for snowdrops, the common ones Galanthus nivalis, growing steadily day by day. Their grey-green leaves usually pierce through the ground before Christmas but only when the stems show the faintest glimmer of white do I know they will soon be flowering. Scilla mischtschenkoana (it used to be sensibly called Scilla tubergeniana) fulfils its promise to flower almost immediately and looks as if it can hardly wait. As it comes through the dark earth the little icy-blue flowers, with a darker stripe down the petals, are clearly visible. This usually happens in mid-January.

Winter aconites have little time for me or my garden soil but I still keep an eye out for the few that do bloom. For bright yellow flowers I look instead to Crocus ancyrensis, the earliest of the crocuses. I don't risk planting them in the heavy damp soil of the garden but instead grow them in pots of compost with plenty of grit added. When they're ready to flower I sink the pots in the soil. The flowers are only about 5cm tall but growing in groups like this they are quite flamboyant.

Just after the New Year I look out for snowdrops, the common ones Galanthus nivalis, growing steadily day by day.

Heather, my English cousin who lives near Southampton, usually spends Christmas with us. She used to remind me frequently that growth in the south of England is much more precocious than it is here in the north of Ireland mainly because of their superior climate. That was before I grew large numbers of the narcissus ‘Rijnveld's Early Sensation'. These are through the ground in early December, have flowerbuds showing clearly at Christmas and have cousin Heather flummoxed. I point out that they're just ordinary big plain yellow trumpet daffodils (true up to a point) but she hasn't yet discovered that in Cornwall they're in flower long before Christmas and are widely sold in flower markets. In the autumn I planted bulbs of the narcissus ‘Crewena', a yellow and white form of ‘Rijnveld's Early Sensation' and I hope the two flower together in mid-January.

Every January and February I look forward to the hellebores coming into flower. They obligingly self-sow all over the place and I am always impatient to see what colours previously unflowered ones are going to be. Being a hopeless plant junkie I look forward to acquiring more double-flowered ones for my collection. Last February 14, I was at Altamont in Co. Carlow and I fell for an exquisite semi-double white Helleborus x hybridus which was on sale in the plant centre. It was the most expensive one I have ever bought, but Davy, my husband, normally a very prosaic Ulsterman, actually gave me the money for it because it was St. Valentine's Day. I can tell you it beats scentless, hot house-grown red roses any day!




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