By the time the middle of winter rolls around most gardeners are chomping at the bit for the arrival of spring color. Although, the appreciation for winter interest gardens has helped satisfy my yearnings for unique texture and bold colors. The Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) that stands boldly in our garden showcasing its flaky, torn mahogany colored bark is gratifying. The Cornus alba ‘Bailhalo’ (Ivory Halo Red Twig Dogwood) grove, which encase the Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ (Yellow oriental Spruce) are electrifying this time of year and the wheat-colored Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’s, are tantalizing as they dance in the winter winds. However, even with all this going on in our garden I can’t help but dream about the explosion of color that’s ahead in just a few short weeks. Buds that seem over ripe and plump are ready to erupt and the unfolding of spring is just around the corner. Two plants that I have learned about in recent years are some of the most exciting for spring color and texture.
Salix yezo-alpina or Salix nakumurana (dwarf alpine willow) is a dwarf pussy willow that grows entirely prostrate. Native to the mountain slopes of Hokkaido Japan, this little wonder is as tough as nails. Able to survive harsh mountain terrain, yezo-alpina can take zone 3 temperatures (-40 to -30fahrenheit) without any problems. Growing only twelve inches tall and spreading six to eight feet, this handsome, garden groundcover plant can be a great alternative to the more pedestrian solutions of Pachysandra, Vinca minor (Periwinkle/Myrtle) and English Ivy. The most interesting attribute of this tiny plant has to be the large upright, two inch, catkins (pussy willow fuzzies) that we all just have to touch. This multi-seasonal plant offers something at every time of year. Along with the anticipated catkins, which incidentally are white and yellow, are the ovate, glossy green leaves, complete with white fur. Yes, fur! Google an image and you’ll see what I mean. As the seasons progress so does the foliage. What starts out in the spring as deep green finishes in the fall with outstanding yellow color complete with bronze and red highlights. Finally, the winter showcases thick purplish-mahogany bark hugging against the ground in a spidery format. Yezo-alpina does not crave excessive amounts of water as do other willow types. As for lighting conditions, they handle just about everything from sun to shade. However, the catkins seem to develop better in more sun. Suitable as a bonsai candidate, it develops a thick, tiny trunk with outreaching limbs. Other considerations for this dwarf willow include climbing down a rock wall or perhaps mass plant it, as we did, around a Salix caprea ‘Pendula’ (Kilmarnock Willow) and have silvery catkins everywhere.
Another favorite to look forward to is Forsythia viridissima var. koreana ‘Kumson’. This forsythia still has great golden blooms heralding the arrival of spring; however, it’s the foliage that will truly blow you away. Dark green leaves with silver venation remind one of an almost lizard-like skin appearance. More shade tolerant than other forsythia this one also has purple stems behind the yellow flowers. A moderate grower to six feet by six feet, Kumson offers interesting foliage that lasts through the fall. Tolerant to a wide range of soil types, as our most forsythia, this will benefit from heavy pruning. Prune Kumson right after its done flowering taking out the older, heavier canes. If you’re not so interested in the flowers and become enamored with the foliage, as I am, then prune again in mid-summer to appreciate more new growth with outstanding variegated foliage. Forsythia ‘Kumson’ has come to us by way of Korea through the efforts of Tim Wood of Spring Meadow Nurseries in Grand Haven, MN. What started out as a search for different types of hibiscus in 1999, at the Botanical Garden of Sungkyunkwan University, ended with the sleeper find of Kumson. The possibilities for this plant are endless. Force the stems in the winter for early indoor color. Use the plant as a quick screen in the sun or shade and appreciate eight months of beautiful foliage with a bonus month of golden flowers or simply plant one as a specimen in your garden.
There are so many plants to look forward to as the warmer seasons approach. However, there are plenty to appreciate this time of year as well. Today alone I came across an impressive witchhazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’) with orange-copper tones. There are just so many plants and so little time.