THE OUTRAGEOUS winter cold has browned many an evergreen leaf in a way that Washington gardeners have not seen for years.
This is not the time, probably, to point out that I have often muttered against the Japanese privet (which nurserymen usually call Ligustrum) on the grounds that it never does anything exciting in the way of flowers or fruit and is, moreover, not as hardy as camellias.
Anyhow, people seem upset at these shrubs, many of which have lost their leaves while others are frozen black or brone. The only thing to do is see how they leaf out, and if they do not leaf out at all - well, there is no law that requires one to plant them.
Much more serious is the occasional damage to camellias. Camellia flower buds get into trouble at 18 or 22 degrees, depending on which authority you accept, and depending on whose thermometer you read.
Suffice it to say we need not expect a lavish flowering this year.
My own plant of 'Bernice Boddy,' an extremely hardy sort, appears to have been killed outright, probably because it was moved from another spot in the garden this past October.
It is often mentioned that varieties of Camellia sasanqua are not so hardy as C. japonica kinds, and this never seems right since the japonicas are so much larger and showier - you would expect the showier kinds to be more tender, but they are not. I may have lost one sasanqua, since the leaves are getting a bit grayish and lifeless looking. The leaf buds still look plump and may unfurl new leaves in April.
One of the glories of other people's gardens is the big Southern magnolia, M. grandiflora, the bull bay. Bull bay is a fine name, though I admit I never heard anybody call it that. It is perfectly reliable in Washington, of course, but this year its leaves have been scorched by the cold.
This is no cause for alarm, necessarily, since farther north the magnolia leaves are damaged every winter, yet the three continues to grow and flower, simply sending out new leaves. At its northern limits (lower New York, say) it sometimes behaves like an oak, dropping all its leaves.
One of the few joys of this irregular winter has been the behavior of the creeping fig, that subtropical vine that clings to masonry, and which I keep saying we could grow on hoise walls here if we protected it a bit.
One of my friends planted these vines out a couple of years back and they all died. Last spring, therefore, I planted three myself and gave them about six inches of leaves and litter.
My heart sank with the thermometer, when I saw this was going to be the worst of all possible winters for establishing newly planted tender things.
At the end of February, however, all three creeping figs (with east, south and west exposures) retained their green leaves beneath their mulch. If I can keep them going until May, they should take off and be relatively safe by next winter.
The lovely stinking hellebore, which started its flower buds in December, went down flat in January and looked worse than I ever say it. By the end of February, though, it straightened up and has got on with its flowering.
By the end of February, that bitter month, there were various crocuses in bloom, along with snowdrops and the Chinese witch hazel and - just opening - the red maple.
I throw in cheerful news from time to time.
The worst feature of the cold was not its severity (however shocking that was) but its long continuance.
We are entitled, as I kept informing Heaven during the past two months, to a thaw every week or two. But this year it froze every night for something like 50 days, and the ground got colder and colder.
The day the top inch of ice melted around my Johnson's blue geranium (not the greenhouse geranium, of course, but the hardy cranesbills) and then froze solid that night around its crown distressed me more than somewhat. Many plants that endure cold happily (or at least safely) cannot endure for snow to melt over ground that is frozen rock hard.
The wormwood, which embarrasses me a little by being such a favorite of mine, this year disappeared in the winter, though as a rule it is notable plant for remaining green in February, when most herbaceous plants are either shabby or underground.
My Corsican hellebores, 2-year-old plants that were my joy, may have been killed outright.
Gardeners well know that sometimes it takes years to get some favorite plant going. First the nursery (it may happen) has sold out, then the next year they send the wrong thing, then the third year the weather is abnormal and the plant dies. And so on.
On the other hand, it often happens some rare plant is just plopped in willy nilly by some. I believe this happens especially in other people's gardens.
Ice in the lily pool was 24 inches deep. I could not believe this. I fear all the goldfish are dead, though they are supposed to be perfectly safe in a pool 18 inches or more in depth. It is expecting a good bit of a goldfish to remain frozen in a block of ice for three weeks straight.
This was especially distressing since my fish were third-generation hatchings from a single original pair, and it was wonderful to see the color variations from those original parents.
I know that no matter what the books say, water lilies can sometimes survive when the roots are frozen solid, because I have grown 'Yellow Pigmy' when it was covered with only half an inch of water, and the shallow pool froze solid. But whether they can stand the ice of this past winter in pools that froze solid is something else again. We shall see.
On Feb. 26 I noticed the neon-brilliant yellow dwarf bulbous Iris dandordiae opened its first flowers. These have emerald green dots in the throat, and smell like daffodils with a slight dash of violet. When I get down on all fours to examine them, people sometimes stare. No matter. This year, for the first time, there has not been a single aphid. Usually one of the green dots moves and I realize what it is. I rather miss them.
Honey bees first appeared abroad Feb. 22 at my place, and have been extremely busy ever since in the crocuses and hovering near the snowdrops which they do not seem to know how to manage. They also go mad for witch hazels and the little irises full of pollen.