HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.




The waxy, fragrant blooms of Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox ‘Grandifloras’) in late January at the Arboretum of the Barnes Foundation.

You can change the world again, instead of protecting yourself from it. ~Julien Smith

As I wandered through some gardens recently on some cold winter days, I noticed buds and flowers. That’s right, winter flowers. Blooming their fool heads off with snowflakes tumbling around them seemingly oblivious to the weather and our perceptions of when flowers should be blooming.


Fiery February blooms of the Jalena Witchhazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jalena’) at the Arboretum of the Barnes Foundation.

One of my most favorite of the winter bloomers is the Jalena Witchhazel seen pictured above, flowering at the Arboretum of the Barnes Foundation a week or so ago. To me those flowers look like tiny flames, like they are creating their own warmth, like the skunk cabbage does so well. Of course I have questions about the purpose and value of blooming at this time of the year (the white in the background of that photo is snow). We think of flowers blooming solely for the purpose of reproduction and in order for reproduction to occur pollinators need to be curiously investigating bloom after bloom.  You may think the lovely witchhazel does not need pollinators – using wind or some other natural method to spread pollen from flower to flower – but as we know by the oaks and grasses, those plants that don’t need to attract pollinators certainly don’t put energy into fiery flowers. I saw no pollinators out and about on this snowy day – so why the February fireworks?


Silky hairs protect the flower buds of Paper Bush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) at the Arboretum of the Barnes Foundation.

According to research by my favorite author Bernd Heinrich (whose book  Winter World, changed the way I look at nature), winter moths are in fact visiting these flowers and pollinating them. These moths have the ability to withstand below freezing temperatures. According to Heinrich these moths “overwinter as adults and they also fly during winter thaws when temperatures reach near or slightly above the freezing point of water.” (Winter World pg. 189)


Fuzzy flower buds of Magnolia.

So I called this post Vulnerability. As I explored various places and stuck my nose in winter flowers over the last few weeks (yep those flowers smell terrific despite the freezing temps) the vulnerability of the buds and flowers to the weather struck me. Just as plants have different ways of protecting their foliage from spiny to silky, so, too, do they have different ways of protecting their flowers, their reproductive potential. Some flowers and leaves sit hunkered down beneath the hard exterior of bud scales, protected from the whatever weather mother nature can throw their way. Other plants cover their buds in soft silky hairs, with the potential for petals visible. Some just put their flowers right on out there into the elements, looking fragile and withstanding the winter in colorful glory. As with any time we make ourselves vulnerable, there is risk. Sometimes those fuzzy buds and soft exterior are not enough protection from an atypical freeze-thaw cycle or an extreme polar vortex (wasn’t that the buzz word from years past?) or any other unexpected event.


Flower buds in various states of open on Mahonia.

Like us, I suppose, the flowers can put their beauty and delicate inner-workings out for the world to see even when the conditions don’t seem right for that type of behavior, or they can hunker down protected with a shield until the perfect time arises. Nature exhibits both of these game plans, hedging bets and ensuring the survival and reproduction of something each year. We humans, in my experience, also share the diversity in ways we prepare for and react to the unexpected. Some of us put our beauty out for the world to see, making ourselves completely vulnerable during adversity, trusting we will make it through and finding we have our own ‘winter moths’ to help us and some of us sit protected in our personal cocoons until the sun shines brightly to warm the earth to the perfect temperature again.  Just as in nature. Equally risky. Equally amazing.


Purple flowers frequently emerge from the soft shells of the bud of Paulownia tomentosa prematurely, only to be killed by freezing temperatures before pollination happens.

Public Service Announcement: I am certain that even in our area we can have blooms in our gardens year-round. Often thought of a trait only of tropical gardens, we have the diversity in plants available to us for fragrance and flowers outdoors even through the cold months. Wondering what you can plant to ensure a year-round display? Go wander through your local botanical garden in the winter! See what is interesting to you. Search out what is flowering and then visit your local garden center and ask for it. I am lucky enough to live where there are 30 botanical gardens within 30 miles, each with their own specialities and unique characteristics. Each an inspiration. Go find yours. Explore it in all seasons.


3 thoughts on “Vulnerability

  1. Pingback: Snug Harbor – April 10, 2018 | HORT travels

  2. That is a great one-word characterization of winter flowering and all those flower buds covered in woolly coats. The Chimonanthus at the Barnes have been amazing this year. (One of the two has finally begun fading after more than six weeks of full bloom, but the one you photographed was still in full color yesterday.)

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