Camellias took a beating a few years ago when even old plants more than 10 feet tall, with trunks like dogwoods, were killed outright.
After sensational cold there were surprises, though surprises are so common after devastating winters that we should not be surprised. Some of the hardiest camellias (japonicas) were killed even below ground and never sprouted from the roots, while others that were never thought particularly hardy pulled through.
One very hardy camellia, the old pale pink 'Magnoliaeflora,' was conspicuous for survival, though often injured.
I have a seedling camellia (that is, one raised from a seed, as distinct from a named garden variety) that seems hardy, though its semidouble flowers are nothing to boast of, and it has the wits to wait until early April to open its buds.
At St. James Episcopal Church near the Capitol a quite large camellia bush described as a tree was loaded with pink flowers the second week of February, and it is said to be a sasanqua hybrid.
The usual camellias are forms of C. japonica. They are the ones seen in flower shops, the ones winter brides used to carry in their bouquets, and the ones familiar from the Dumas novel and the Verdi opera about the lady of the camellias.
But equally valuable in the garden are the forms of C. sasanqua, which grows faster and usually blooms in November, dribbling into January. The common old kind of this camellia species called 'Rosea' is usually looked down on by young gardeners who have not had time to raise a huge plant of it smothered with single blooms in November. It and many other sasanquas have a haunting fragrance that suggests new-mown hay.
I no longer grow these, but when I did I thought the scent was the most wonderful smell of the entire year. Of the eight or 10 kinds I grew, the two best were the ordinary 'Rosea' and the double pink 'Showa-no-sake,' which was unique (in my garden) in blooming in January, and which alone seemed impervious to weather. The only sasanqua I disliked was the double white 'Snow on the Mountain,' which invariably sat there with big fat buds until a spell of temperatures in the teens approached. Then it opened and of course was a frozen mess every year.
Once I wrote a few scathing remarks about it and it paid me back by blooming in perfection at Thanksgiving.
I know plants do not do these things deliberately, but sometimes one must wonder. Too many times, when I have waxed lyrical about a plant it has promptly died. I remember a daylily, 'Sunblest,' that for several summers produced three sets of flowers every year -- not just an occasional out-of-season bloomscape but a dozen blooming stems at a time. After mentioning it in the press twice, I had to divide and move the clump, and since then it has never dreamed of blooming after July. This shows not only that reblooming varieties of daylilies depend on weather and (I believe) sunspots, but also that it is hazardous to make personal comments about any plant, such as how faithful it is etc.
Many gardeners with small city places wisely make rather a feature of daffodils, and one of the best ways to grow them is in clumps of six bulbs, leaving them alone for three or four years, digging them up and dividing the bulbs, and replanting only six to form the new clump.
But there are so many beautiful kinds that a small garden can hold only a few, and as the daffodil lover tends to keep buying new kinds as soon as he can afford them, the day soon comes when some well-loved old variety must be discarded. Given away. All winter, but especially in February, the gardener consults his charts and his memory and after some agonizing decides that "this is the year old 'Brunswick' must go," to make room for a new clump of "something much better."
No sooner does the gardener reach a few hard decisions of this kind than April shows 'Brunswick' (or whatever other variety is on the discard list) in quite unearthly and unaccustomed beauty. The same is true of irises. I have seen this happen time and again.
This is the first winter in recent years in which pansies have bloomed steadily from December on. In other winters there will be a few flowers off and on between freezes and a number of quite shy hooded blooms that make you wonder whether you can claim it is in bloom or not. But this winter they have carried on almost without a break, producing flowers as fine as those of the spring.
Our bitter suspicion that all this is leading up to a freeze to end all freezes, just as everything in the garden buds out, must not blind us to the chancy delights of this year, such as the pansies, to say nothing of the snowdrops two weeks early.
I may have mentioned (complained, I suppose) that my early crocuses, the small wild-looking kinds that bloom before the great fat Dutch garden varieties, are dwindling out, mainly because nearby shrubs are shading them too much. But when heading for the car this week I noticed in the grass neutral strip beyond the sidewalk several tiny crocuses, the flowers no bigger than shirt buttons, that clearly grew from seeds of the ones in the garden.
That is curious, as I think no animals carry off the seeds (as they do of cyclamen, for example) and the seeds are not wind-borne. I think the rains must have washed the seeds down, and there in the grass, despite all the mowings, they have managed to grow to blooming size.
There are many of these late-winter crocuses that even in ordinary winters are finished blooming by March 5, and among them the hybrids derived from Crocus chrysanthus, in white, lavender, primrose, canary, bronze, bicolor and striped, are the easiest to find in September (when they should be planted) at garden centers and in bulb catalogues. And they are possibly the best for all-round garden worth.