It snowed yesterday. Again. Not too far removed from one of the driest years on record, some towns in central Illinois have set all-time records for winter snowfall and we’re still five weeks away from the official end of the season. Gone are warm, sentimental smiles as folks see flakes falling. They’ve been replaced by rolling eyes and frustrated sighs. No one is looking forward to another day of sliding around town as biting winds nip our faces. Jack Frost, you’re far from most wanted in these parts.
I’ve looked out the windows each day, walking by the driveway border on the way to work, watching the snow and ice slowly accumulate. I’m normally eager for exploration in the winter garden. Recently I’ve sat placated by the warm comfort of the living room, watching the sun melt the snow on the roof into a regiment of slowly-growing Pinocchio noses along the gutters. The drips were deceiving, as the thermometer was barely in the teens.
With reports of — dare I say — spring-like temperatures in next week’s forecast, I left the couch and a good book behind to see if the late winter garden had more to offer than the steady monotony of dripping icicles.
Icicles may leave flat areas beneath them slicker than a Sochi curling sheet, but when a garden canvas lies below, each drip becomes nature’s medium. If I weren’t so craving warmer temperatures, it would be fascinating to watch this Miscanthus seed head as it morphs into a suspended, frozen nautilus.
The snow has removed much of the texture and topography from the landscape. The taller remains of last year’s garden stand as lonely sentinels, or perhaps periscopes, in the sea of white. As the snow recedes, I look forward to the surprises of the forgotten elements below. Maybe a few hints of spring will have broken through the ground. A hellebore or two, perhaps. A guy can hope, no?
Much like the humans trudging through the season, the dried hydrangea heads have fallen prostrate to winter’s weight.
“I give up,” they say. “Put me out of my misery.”
By this time of year, I’d normally see some sign of swelling buds along the hydrangea stems. This year, they’re having none of it. For the better, though. An emerging hydrangea leaf is an easy target for late cold.
The chokeberry along the driveway has even begun to wane. Its fruit, normally a cheery red throughout winter, has begun to fade and desiccate. Too cold for too long, even this stalwart Aronia gives up the fight.
If these images were all I’d seen, I may have rethought my decision to leave my book and warm blanket behind. The garden wasn’t entirely a confirmation of a long, cold winter; it also held signs of change.
Both flower and leaf buds swell on the Allegheny Viburnum just a few feet from the icicle army. I’ve always wondered if the furry stems on this shrub keep it just a little warmer than the rest. A warm jacket always helps one endure the cold.
The leaves of Rhododendron are witness to the cold, a formation of evergreen shuttlecocks above the snow. As the temperature rises, they will uncurl and rise below the scaled buds at the tip. I can already imagine the large magenta flowers that will emerge in mid-spring.
The Pieris nearby wears a cap of snow. Numerous burgundy buds hang in anticipation, holding bell-shaped white flowers within that wait for just the right moment. It’s one of my favorite flowers to photograph, so I’m sure its patience may outlast mine.
By mid-February, witch hazel buds have usually broken. Last year, their brilliant orange petals had begun to peek out of the buds as February began. This year, they appear to still be a week or so away. Next week’s warmer weather should break at least a few.
The green-yellow twigs and buds of Sweetgum are another marker of winter’s exit in my garden. The buds swell to twice this size before opening in a flourish of spring green.
As my eyes scanned through a crabapple looking for its tiny leaf buds, I caught an out-of-the-ordinary grey mass attached to one of the branches. A praying mantis egg case! If the eggs endured our multiple days of sub-zero weather, we should have hundreds of baby mantids emerge once the thermometer regularly reads above 70 degrees. One of the most beneficial predatory insects, mantids are always welcome in my garden.