Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
April, 2008
Regional Report

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Unwrapping the fig tree is a spring ritual.

Spring Blooms

Opening the cottage gate, I sniffed the night air, then inhaled deeply. Yes, it was the sweet scent of star magnolia in bloom. When untouched by a late freeze, Magnolia stellata bursts into an early spring flurry of white flowers. I snipped about a dozen short branches dripping with blossoms. Each waxy petal is fragrant; some have a hint of pink. Fuzzy flower buds peek above drooping petals attached to angular, gray-brown branches. One vaseful goes upstairs; the other sits on the dinner table. Sniff. Breathe.

In Angela's East Falls garden, we did the annual unveiling of the fig. Scissors, ladder, and utility knife to start; patience and dexterity to finish. First we clipped the strings encircling this 8-foot by 6-foot package. Unwrapping layers of burlap and frost-protection fabric, we looked for bulbous signs of figs on rubbery, bare, brown branches. We freed the tightly bound branches -- unwinding twine stretched and pulled last December -- then removed oak leaves protecting the lower trunk and roots. We sprinkled lime and fertilizer for good measure.

More Spring Treasures
On sunny hillsides in southeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and at the New York Botanical Garden, blue Chinodoxia, purple Iris reticulata, white Siberian squill, and yellow daffodils dazzle the eye. Blue violas, purple Johnny-jump-ups, and perky pansies delight, and many more plump buds promise color when temperatures are favorable.

Rhododendron, Azalea, or Both?
Say "rhododendron" and most people envision large-leaved, evergreen, big-budded shrubs. Rhododendron 'Maximum Roseum', rhododendron Dexter series, and native Rhododendron catawbiense are popular big-leaf rhodies. In this case "rhododendron" is both the common and botanical name, Robert Herald recently told plant lovers in a talk at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Large-leaved rhododendrons are "elepidote" -- without scales on the undersides of the leaves, he added.

Herald knows his rhodies. As plant recorder at Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania, he's involved in the restoration of that historic rhododendron collection. He teaches courses about flowering shrubs and trees at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, and is horticulturist at Chanticleer, A Pleasure Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

In general, three more types of flowering shrubs fall under the umbrella of the genus Rhododendron, which includes over 1,000 species. There are small-leaved rhodies with scales; evergreen azaleas; and deciduous azaleas. "Lepidote" rhododendrons have scales underneath their small leaves. These compact rhododendrons withstand more sun and bloom earlier than their big cousins. Rhododendron lapponicum, native American evergreen Rhododendron minus (formerly called R. carolinianum), and Rhododendron mucronulatum 'Cornell Pink' are lepidotes.

Azalea is the common name for rhododendrons with small, scaleless leaves and azalea flowers with five or six pollen-bearing stamens. Most azaleas bloom a bit earlier than large-leaved rhododendrons. The evergreen azaleas are native to Japan and China. They grow spring leaves that drop in the fall and hairy summer leaves that persist through winter.

Deciduous azaleas, such as the fragrant white swamp azalea and the showy flame azalea, lose their leaves in winter. Most are native to North America.

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