Plants and the ever-changing weather

cunningham_rhodieIt’s February 8th and the northeast has just experienced yet another doozy of a snowstorm, which was preceded by a week of dry and bone-chillingly cold temps (hello polar vortex!), sprinkled with a day or two of balmy 30-40 degree days in between.  My kids are sick, not surprisingly, because their little bodies switch between 2 and 20 layers of clothing, as we race between warm, germ-infested indoor environments that haven’t had an open window in months, and the sinus-stripping outdoors.  How can any living thing reasonably acclimate to that?

Which brings me to my current post, a question that I’ve been asked more frequently by clients and friends alike: what am I recommending for reliable plantings these days that consistently survive these brutal winters?  It’s a tough one.  For years I have confidently spec’d broadleaf evergreens (rhododendron, boxwood, holly, mountain laurel and andromeda), especially in eastern-facing and shadier locations, as the basis of most of my planting designs: they provide such a rich, jewel-toned, dark green which allows everything around them to pop, and they provide that color all year long.  What’s not to like?  But now, with the see-sawing climate changes we have been experiencing, these lovely broadleaf evergreens are left brown and brittle come spring.  It’s a problem…

So I have a couple options that I offer to those who ask: 1. continue to plant these lovelies, but protect them in the winter with a waxy spray and/or a burlap wrapping to prevent desiccation, or 2. plant something else.  But the question is what is as attractive and does the job as well as broadleaf evergreens?  I have found that I am branching out to consider plants that haven’t been on my top 5 list before (I admit, I am a plant snob) such as yews and arborvitae (gasp!), and I am expanding my palette of plants.  One that I’ve just recently begun a love affair with is Cephalotaxus (Plum Yew), which has a gorgeous upright habit and a leaf configuration that reminds me of an Umbrella Pine on a smaller scale.  Love!

I also am relying more heavily on deciduous plants as of late.  I’m experimenting with leaf color and texture and specifying more plants with interesting winter bark and fruit to help take the curse off the loss of the broadleaves in winter.  Who doesn’t love winterberry, hawthorne, or beautyberry for their almost florescent fall and winter fruit or stewartia, kousa dogwood or red-twig dogwood for their gorgeous bark?

It’s a compromise, and like everything in nature, it’s never stagnant.  But soon enough we will be basking in the sunshine and (imagine) complaining about the temperatures being hot…and I will be writing about plants that can tolerate drought and desert-like climates.  Stay tuned!

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