Winter Bloomers Show their Stuff
By Sandy Metzger, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Most plants have begun their winter dormancy; there's no more topside vegetative growth, though the roots are still actively taking in nutrition. This is especially true for the plants that you may have dug into the ground this Fall, the best of all seasons to plant. The roots are busy getting established during the winter rains and preparing for the first burst of bloom in the late spring and summer. But some plants seem to be out of sync and defy all normal growing schedules; many of them happen to be California natives.
Compared to summer, the color palettes might be muted, but there are still many plants blooming in gardens, along the roads, and on the hillsides. You can't miss the early-blooming bulb Paperwhites, standing 12-18" with nodding heads (and oft times somewhat obnoxious odor). Rosemary, a Mediterranean shrub, begins its bloom in late November-early December, tempting the honeybees on warm days. Not only is its blue a welcome vision, but that rich rosemary fragrance fills the air as you brush by it. It has great culinary value as well. Both upright and prostrate varieties are useful in many garden situations.
Not to be upstaged by rosemary, our native and ubiquitous Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis) is in full bloom, scattered along roadsides and hillsides alike. You can't miss it—tiny white flowers clothe the mounded, scrubby evergreen bushes. Gardeners either love it or hate it; those in the latter group probably because of the annual shedding of flying-around female plant fluff. However, it is hardy, reliable and drought tolerant, and its prostrate forms provide a thick groundcover useful for hillsides and restoration projects. It can be hedged and shaped as well. It's also an excellent habitat plant for cover and food for insects, birds and mammals. Most nurseries offer only the male plants for sale.
One of the most visually dramatic winter bloomers is another native, Garrya elliptica, Coast Silk-Tassel, an evergreen shrub or small tree that is covered with dangling white catkins during January and February. Like Coyote Brush and other natives, it takes infrequent watering and requires well-drained soil. In hot, sunny inland areas, it does better with some afternoon shade and occasional irrigation. The two most common and robust cultivars are 'James Roof' and 'Evie'. Prune for aesthetics and to eliminate any dried leaves or dieback.
Another favored native is the evergreen, drought tolerant Arctostaphylos, or Manzanita, treasured for it many species, varied forms, dramatic trunk and branch formations, fragrant winter blossoms, and small apple-like fruit (manzanita translates from Spanish to "little apple"). Many manzanitas bloom in winter, but the earliest bloomers begin in September and October, providing nectar to hummingbirds and butterflies when most other plants have stopped blooming. With more than 90 species found in the wild and an additional 140 named cultivars, there certainly will be just the right one for you and your particular garden environment. Manzanitas prefer plenty of sunshine and good drainage.
Salvia spathacea, or Hummingbird Sage, a semi-evergreen herbaceous perennial, begins blooming in late winter and sporadically on into the summer. Its bright magenta to ruby to red flowers, in tiered whorls, do attract hummers. This is a creeping perennial that will spread by underground rhizomes, though generally not invasively. The rhizomes are easy to pull or dig up to plant or share. Wear gloves when pruning or relocating as the leaves and stalks are covered with annoying soft, sticky hairs. Hummingbird sage, whose stalks rise one to three feet above the leaves, can be massed for a dramatic effect and does quite well in dry shade. Occasional water keeps the plants refreshed.
If you're looking for reliable winter-blooming vines, three come to mind: Aristolochia californica (Dutchman's Pipe), Hardenbergia (Lilac Vine), and Solanum jasminoides (Potato Vine). A California native, Dutchman's Pipe is deciduous and blooms in late winter, dangling its odd, pipe-shaped flowers from its twining vines. The bulbous, curved flowers are about 1½ inches long and almost camouflaged by the leaves. It is a rhizomatous vine and can sometimes be difficult to establish; however, once established, it reliably grows 12-15 feet long in dry shade. This is not a showy vine, but it does attract the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.
Hardenbergia is evergreen with dark green leaves and lavender-purple clustered blossoms resembling tiny peas. It likes sun to part shade and moderate water. It will grow up trellises or cover fences, creating a thick screen. Massing Hardenbergia gives a more showy effect. Deer do not eat it!
This is just a sampler of winter-blooming plants for Sonoma County. Though some bloom in later winter, there are many more, such as: Hellebores, Daphne odora, Ribes sanguineum, Hamamelis mollis (Chinese Witch Hazel), Euryops, Osmanthus, Sarcococca, Borage, Woolly Blue Curls, Ceanothus, various citrus trees, and many varieties of bulbs.
And don't forget, when you're making your selections, take into consideration your own garden conditions (sun, shade, soil, temperature ranges) and the characteristics of the plants (water and drainage requirements, sun/shade needs, growth habits, and the like). Choosing a citrus tree or other tender plant will not be appropriate if you are in a low-lying area and find yourself breaking ice on your birdbaths all winter. Look around to see what is blooming now; make notes, decide what you like, and find out where the plants are available. Plan now and plant later in the spring. Come next winter you will have many beautiful blooming plants to brighten up your garden and to feed the insects and hummers still active in your yard.