Friday, February 18, 2011

A day like this, a gray sky and 5 inches of fresh snow laid gently atop the almost foot of snow already blanketing the ground, hardly turns my mind to gardening or plants. Even the greenhouse, usually a cheery, verdant retreat in winter, is dark and cold. Snow on the plastic roof blocks what little light peeks through the gray sky, and the heater doesn’t come alive until the temperature drops to 37° F.

And then I reach into my mailbox, and out comes summer! More seed and nursery catalogs oozing with photos of fresh carrots, heads of lettuce, juicy peaches, and sunny sunflowers. I’ve already ordered all my seeds, or so I thought until I started thumbing through more catalogs. Offerings in vegetable seeds, in particular, seem to get more interesting each year.

Take carrots, for example. Carrots have long been available in all sort of shapes and sizes. Now, I see that I can also buy seeds for white carrots (White Satin variety), carrots deep purple through and through (Deep Purple variety), and purple carrots with orange centers (Purple Haze variety).

Caulifower is also getting colorful. Its curds need not be white. The variety Cheddar is the color of orange cheddar cheese. Graffiti is a purple variety, unique among purple cauliflowers for retaining its color after being cooked. For years, I’ve grown Violet Queen cauliflower, which turns green after being cooked and tastes very good.

I’m not saying that any of these interesting varieties taste better than less flamboyant varieties. I’m just sayin’ . . . they’re interesting.


Besides perusing summer-y seed and nursery catalogs, another antidote for a gray winter day is to get outside and enjoy it. I also did that today, kicking and gliding through wooded paths on cross-country skiis.

In my travels, I came across plants flaunting winter weather and showing signs of life. Those plants were the native witchhazels, known as common witchhazel (Hamamelis, virginiana), that still had some strappy yellow petals showing. The flowers don’t exactly jump out at you so you have to get up pretty close to even notice them. Still, they are a sign of plant life in the depths of winter.

The flowers I saw were hangers-on. Common witchhazels typically begin blooming in September and finish by December. How seemingly foolish! It’s been hypothesized that they bloom when they do so as not to compete with another species, vernal witchhazel (H. vernalis), where both are native. Vernal witchhazel, is at home in the midwest and south, begins blooming in January and might continue until spring.

Even without that competition, not much reproduction is going on with common witchhazel. It has a motley crew of pollinators: tiny wasps, fungus gnats, bees, flies, and winter moths. And even with all those matchmakers, less than 1% of flowers go on to form fruit and make seed. The seeds, 2 per fruit, are shot out of the fruits in autumn. After weevils, caterpillars, wild turkeys, and squirrels have had their fill, only about 15% of those few seeds survive. It’s a wonder I came upon so many witchhazels in my winter glide.

Looking over plant and garden notes from last year, I see that my cultivated witchhazel, the variety Arnold Promise, bloomed in my front yard in mid-March last year. That variety is a hybrid of Chinese and Japanese species. It blossoms later and its blossoms are much, much showier and more fragrant.


I’m supposed to plant onion seeds today or sometime soon. Yes, seeds. Seeds are the only way to be able to choose from the widest selection of onion varieties. Those witchhazel flowers are not enough to well up in me that urge to plant anything. Tomorrow will be sunny; that should do it.

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