Bright colors for the gray months
by Rachel Foster
That cold snap in early December, the harshest since 1991, was tough on many ornamental plants that usually look pretty good all winter here in the southern Willamette Valley. Some evergreen plants we have come to view as hardy, such as camellias and Mexican orange blossom, especially where exposed to morning sun, were quite badly scorched. So it was heartening to discover, on an early January visit to Gossler Farms Nursery (a garden well known for all-season interest) that most staples of the winter garden were looking fine.
In the Gosslers’ cozy office, I asked Roger Gossler the obvious question: If you could choose just one plant to add pep to the winter landsacpe, what would it be? Roger didn’t have to think long before responding, though he picked not one but two: hybrid hamamelis (witch hazel) and Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire.’ For much of the year, witch hazels don’t look all that exciting, as Roger pointed out. “But when you see one in full bloom in January you just want it so bad.” Fall color is excellent, too.
Many of the 50-odd witch hazels at Gosslers (mostly the Chinese Hamamelis mollis or Asian hybrids, H. x intermedia) were indeed blooming the first week in January, unfurling their skinny but abundant petals in bright yellow, light yellow, coppery orange or crimson, but they don’t all bloom at once. ‘Early Bright’ is perhaps two weeks ahead of the main season, Roger says, while the newer introduction ‘Angelly’ is in flower “clear into March.” Different colors are scattered through the planting that lines the main driveway, and Roger loves the way they carry the eye through the garden.
Most hamamelis varieties grow moderately slowly, to 12-15 feet tall in 30 years and about as wide, although the justly popular ‘Arnold Promise,’ an upright grower with lots of bright yellow, fragrant flowers and magnificent fall color, may limit itself to 10 feet in width in sun. Witch hazels need very little pruning until they approach maturity, when the Gosslers recommend frequent, light thinning to keep them open and vigorous. If space is at a premium, Roger suggests you cut stems for the house when the shrub is in bloom, to keep a plant about 8 to 10 feet tall.
Roger’s other choice, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire,’ is one of those shrubby dogwoods with colorful stems, sporting a vivid blend of yellow, orange and red. Young wood shows the brightest color, so Roger cuts the plants right down to about 8 inches in mid-March, “when the magnolias are blooming.” Even very small gardens can accommodate ‘Midwinter Fire’ when it is pruned this way. Golden fall foliage is the icing on the cake.
After some lengthy chat about witch hazels, I asked what else stands out. What about that pine that turns yellow in winter? (I had noticed a nine or ten foot specimen as I drove to the office.) This lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia ‘Chief Joseph’), discovered in the Wallowa Mountains by a hunter, looks much like any other lodgepole in the summer. About mid-October, depending on the weather, it turns bright yellow in the space of a week, then stays that way until March, when warmer temperatures cause it to green up again.
When I asked Roger’s mother, Marj, if she would contribute a favorite, she indicated a hybrid Asian mahonia (Mahonia x media) just outside the window. Most of the specimens at the nursery had lost their flowers and even showed some foliage burn from the cold, but this one, sheltered from morning sun, was more or less intact and blooming. Many gardeners avoid these magnificent Oregon grape relatives because they look so spiny, but Roger says that they are no problem once you get them in the ground. Their structural drama and fragrant winter bloom (much earlier than Oregon Grape) makes them worth the trouble. Annas hummingbirds love them, too.
You can see all these shrubs and many more outstanding garden plants at the Gosslers’ family run nursery, 1200 Weaver Road, Springfield. It is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday throughout the year. To visit at another time, call ahead, (541) 746-3922.
A fine book by Roger, Marj and Roger’s brother Eric was published recently by Timber Press. The Gossler Guide to the Best Hardy Shrubs is the culmination of many decades of experience, research and observation, discriminating plant selection and sheer love of plants. It is informative and entertaining, and I heartily recommend it.
Rachel Foster of Eugene is a writer and garden consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org