Good tidings from the South’s winter garden! I plucked a fistful of super fragrant paperwhite daffodils last week, the first of my cherished winter flowers — a week before winter officially started.
Garden experts usually don’t reveal their favorite flowers, but paperwhites and jonquils are mine, for several reasons. The heirlooms were given to me by my horticulturist great-grandmother Pearl from her own garden. They are absolutely zero maintenance and pest free (even squirrel and deer proof); they flower faithfully at the beginning of our least floriferous season no matter what the summer was like; they make good cut flowers for dreary days indoors; and, though some folks swear they smell like cat wee, they are fragrant.
Oh, and they multiply and are easy to share, which, in my book, is maybe more important than all the rest.
See, I had a fella at my local watering hole complain, as earnestly as anyone drinking light beer could, that there isn’t anything to enjoy in the winter garden. I shook my head, knowing he thinks this way because he must not’ve been raised right. Apparently, there were no sharing gardeners in his upbringing.
My youth’s winters were filled with early-flowering paperwhites and true jonquils (the kind of daffodils with thin, reedy, quill-like leaves), which by the way grow only for us in the South because they can’t take hard freezes farther north. And in the harshest Januarys and Februarys our home always had a big container of cut flowers from red flowering quince, yellow Mahonia and Hellebores which we called Lenten rose.
My ancestral home grounds were fragrant with winter honeysuckle, and there was colorful foliage everywhere, including iris, variegated Aucuba, big-leaf Fatsia, Aspidistra (cast iron plant), dwarf palmetto, variegated Euonymus, golden variegated Yucca, painted Arum, red tip Photinia, rosemary, hollies, Magnolia, wax Ligustrum, junipers, plum yew, red twig dogwood and emerald Arborvitae.
And berries, of course, in reds, yellows, oranges, blue, purple and nearly black. These days a few hysterical folks are passing around the near-specious idea that Nandina are bad for birds, which is based on overblown reports of a few random cases of certain bird species, mostly greedy cedar waxwings with their large craws, occasionally overindulging and dying by the chemicals in fermenting berries (which are also present in apple, cherry and Pyracantha seeds). It’s a dosage issue, which overall isn’t a seriously widespread problem. Really.
Anyway, and in spite of their being a somewhat invasive species, I love my all-season Nandinas. When my father passed away right after Christmas several years ago, I arranged, in a blue Milk of Magnesia bottle, a bouquet from his garden. It was simply Camellia flowers, paperwhites and sprays of red Nandina berries, all which had been planted by my great-grandmother before Dad had been born, still performing beautifully and dependable as midwinter dandelions, after decades of neglect and weather disasters.
This in addition to the cold-hardy winter annuals including violas, pansies, dusty miller, kale, parsley and perennial creeping sedums. All which Pearl grew and shared with her garden club friends.
Throw in how winter is when my best garden “hard features” shine, from an old bench and a strategically placed urn, large stones, small gnomes, St. Fiacre statue, colorful bottle trees and birdhouse collection. Oh, and the bird feeder which attracts its own flutter of motion, color and drama.
I was sad my pub friend hadn’t been raised with all this and thinking it’s normal, or maybe just taking for granted what surrounds us Southerners all winter.
So back to the paperwhites. Want to raise a Southern kid right? Start there.
Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.