Bloom watching is a pastime of mine, and a great spot for it is Tudor Place Historic House and Garden in Georgetown, where I went last week.
It's like bird-watching. Unlike our feathered friends, though, flowers stand still, or seem to, for a short time. A nice aspect of bloom watching at Tudor Place is that the plants are labeled. This 51/2 acre estate, a historic landmark, was a buffet of spring colors.
Tudor Place was built by the first mayor of Georgetown, Thomas Peter, whose father was a Scottish tobacco merchant, and whose wife, Martha Custis Peter, was the granddaughter of Martha Washington. The property was home to six generations of Peters. The gardens were a very personal collection of plants and spaces. The last owner, Armistead Peter III, not only managed every aspect of the grounds, but also built by himself a brick patio in one of four parterres in front of the house. Today, the gardens are kept by Tudor Place Foundation (with the help of two gardeners, a garden manager and 10 volunteers) very much as Peter left them.
There are, broadly speaking, four main garden areas: the south-facing lawn, the former bowling green, the four formal gardens, and the former tennis court area in the north. Each of these larger spaces contains smaller garden rooms.
In the 1930s, as the area surrounding the property was built up, effort was made to screen the gardens from the busy Georgetown streets -- a natural evolution. There are several magnificent old white oaks, as well as a 200-year-old American holly, magnolias and tulip poplars. One of the tulip poplars on the South Lawn was designated Millennium Landmark Tree for the District in 2001. Almost all of the smaller ornamental trees have showy flowers.
It is rare to have such a complex palette of flowers all blooming at the same time. Because of the snow, Lenten rose missed opening by a couple of months. They are generally faded by tax time; this year they peaked with the cherry blossoms.
Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis) were ringing the Thistle Terrace. These evergreen perennials displayed their delicate, dependable flowering and looked like they would hold their color into May. They are very tolerant of shade and grow well in moist, well-drained soil, high in organic material. They are slow to establish and spread but easily propagate from seed. After several years, seedlings form around the base of established parent plants and, while not true to color, will flower as dependably as the parents.
Another treat to see in bloom was the dainty, old-fashioned spirea (Spiraea thunbergii). There was one just outside the terrace, bordering the dell and dotting other parts of the property. Masses of tiny white flowers were quite noticeable from afar. This dainty Thunberg spirea is not commonly found in the trade anymore.
Tulips were blooming with daffodils, and on the lawn where the tennis court once was, urns of hyacinths drenched the area with fragrance. Another ephemeral that is a favorite wildflower of mine and a pleasing spring accent for the shady garden, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), made an appearance. This one- to two-foot tall coarse-textured plant is slow to establish but will colonize areas of the woods. Its nodding clusters of blue bell-shaped flowers are exciting to behold through spring; then by mid-summer, all signs of them disappear. Planted with them and currently displaying tiny yellow flowers are shade-tolerant epimediums (E. grandiflorum "Rose Queen," E. X rubrum and E. X versicolor "Sulphureum") that will be taking over in spring and fall when the blue bells fade.
Almost as temporal in flower but much more invasive in habit, a deep purple, nearly black, flowering spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) was blooming. Its diminutive flowers stopped me in my tracks -- they're a real attention-getter, considering the rest of the growing season its 18-inch- to 2-foot-tall stand of stems and leaves flop on top of the plants around it. I cut spiderwort in half after flowering. It produces fewer seeds and will sometimes re-bloom if growth continues.
The winter jasmine was blooming on a shady mound around the Thistle Garden, looking much like the forsythia that was making its annual show nearby. Along the walk, I had to stoop to smell a daphne (D. odora) flower, as pleasant a fragrance as exists. This is not a long-lived plant. It likes shady, well-drained conditions. It will often decline in four or five years and must be replanted, but that's the ongoing nature of gardening. Peter would have liked that aspect of the daphne. He was very much into trial and error and doing it himself. When he died in 1983, he requested in his will that "no landscape architect" be allowed to touch the place.
By the dell, the racemes of tiny white bell-shaped flowers were opening on the Japanese pieris. This is a versatile plant. It tends to do well in rich, moist, well-drained soil. It doesn't like full sun but will tolerate soils that are lower in organic material. The flowers are spectacular as they cascade over the layered, asymmetrical, evergreen foliage.
That's 12 plants in bloom so far. Then I noticed the flowering trees. A mature serviceberry specimen (Amelanchier laevis) in the dell stands eight to 10 feet below the promenade, and the large trunks bring the flowers to the top of the terrace where you can peer down into them. The flowers will fade, but the berries that follow are well worth tasting, if you can beat the birds to them.
The yoshino (Prunus yedoensis) and higan (P. subhirtella) flowering cherries opened together. Very popular ever since the United States was given flowering cherries by the Japanese in 1912, both are on the property. The yoshino is the traditional one that surrounds the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial. The higan cherry is the one that you most often see with a weeping form.
The saucer magnolia (M. X soulangeana) and star magnolias (M. stellata) are flowering concurrently. This seldom happens. The strap-shaped petals of the star magnolia have generally faded before the saucer magnolia opens. When both strut their stuff together, the effect is an absolute pleasure. Crab apple buds were beginning to show color, but I guess that doesn't count. I'd be cheating if I counted that one with the others. It's like almost seeing a bird.
Having seen 17 plants in bloom, I would consider this a very successful afternoon of bloom watching. A month ago some areas were covered with more than a foot of snow. There are, of course many more blossoms to find. Look in your own back yard. Nothing beats the first flowers of winter and early spring. Within a week or two, your choices will number into the hundreds.
Tudor Place is at 1644 31st St. NW. For more information, see www.tudorplace.org or call 202-965-0400. A new exhibit, "1816 Georgetown: Building the Modern House," opened this week.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org; his Web page is www.gardenlerner.com.