’Tis The Time of Year . . .

by Judy Funderburk, Extension Master Gardener 

Galanthus nivalis (snowdrops) in November.
Photo © 2010 Mary Free

A time to look back and to look forward. To celebrate seasons past and those to come. A time when days grow shorter, and the nights grow longer. When elves and fairies, beauty, surprises, magic and mystery coexist. A time to remember the beauty of fall, drop into the mystery of winter, anticipate the magic of spring and imagine the surprises of summer.

The Beauty of Fall

Temperatures drop, leaves turn, birds migrate, and the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden puts on its fall “dress.” Leaves in shades of red, gold, orange and aubergine decorate the branches of Itea, Fothergilla, Chokeberry, and Sweet Gum – some of many colorful trees and shrubs found on the Library grounds. How does this miracle happen? Yes, there are explanations; read about  Why Leaves Change Color from the U.S. Forest Service.

But even the U.S. Forest Service waxes lyrical in their descriptions: “As the days grow shorter, and the nights grow longer and cooler, biochemical processes in the leaf begin to paint the landscape with Nature’s autumn palette.” Remember with delight the beauty of “fall color” and the dance of leaves of all sizes, shapes and colors as they drift earthward, gifting us with natural compost as well as their autumnal glow.

Liquidambar styraciflua (sweet gum) in October. Photo © 2014 Elaine Mills

Liquidambar styraciflua (sweetgum) in October.
Photo © 2014 Elaine Mills

The Mystery of Winter

Even after having read much of the “science,” it is still a fascinating mystery to me that some shrubs save their most spectacular displays for the colder darker times of the year. Why do the branches of the Red-Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Bailyei’) in the Woodland/Shade garden turn from dull green to deep red every winter? Is it just to be seen? To delight our eyes and decorate our yards? Not likely. Why do the Winterberry hollies’ green berries turn a brilliant shiny red just when the holidays roll around? And why are they so astringent in taste that the birds do not eat them until February (or even March if you have a local mockingbird who protects the berries as his personal larder)! One of the many great things about being a Master Gardener is that it is such fun to always be learning the facts plus have experiences in the garden that ignite our imaginations and sense of inquiry. To be outside in winter and take delight in the bright red stems, the berries, the birds, are the real gifts of the season.

‘Red Sprite’ winterberry holly picture with Northern Mockingbird.
Photo © Mary Free

Don’t rush winter away too quickly.  Watch for the gifts of its unfolding through Groundhog’s and Valentine’s day. Soon enough there will be Christmas Rose Hellebores  (Hellebores niger) blooming and buds on forsythia or flowering quince from which you may take cuttings to bring their winter interest inside.

The Magic of “Not Quite” Spring

Galanthus nivalis (snowdrops) blooming in February.
Photo © Elaine Mills

Your fingers and toes may be cold, but your face will light up when you walk along the brick path into the 3rd Street Garden and slow down to notice what’s growing. Though the ground is often frozen or snow-covered, look closely for 6-inch high stalks of green with little white flowers nodding off the end of the stalk. They are called “snowdrops.” Galanthus nivalis is the botanical name – gala is Greek for “milk,” while anthos is Greek for “flower,” and nivalis is Latin for “snow-like.” These tiny plants are perennials that magically return each year, heralding a new growing season even as snow covers the ground and most plants lie dormant. Take a closer look and let your imagination see this treasure of a plant as a tiny fairy’s green crook-shaped wand. The curve of the crook holds the pure white “drop” of the outer flower petals hanging down around smaller inner petals that look like a little bell tipped with green. Many of these small bulbs planted together create a kind of fairyland, like magic!

Surprises of the Summer Garden

You may have to bend over and look very carefully to see the beginning of what becomes one of the more enchanting series of surprises of the summer garden. Series, because each stage of the journey of the monarch butterfly to adulthood is amazing! First, find some milkweed. Adult monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed because it is the only plant that baby monarch caterpillars can eat to grow and thrive. You will need very sharp eyes and a lot of patience, carefully turning over the leaves of any of the three types of milkweed native to our area. You are looking to find tiny individual cream-colored eggs (up to three on a leaf) or tiny (¼ to ½ inch) baby caterpillars. In fact, children often see the eggs or tiny larval caterpillars first, since they are built closer to the ground!

The Library Garden has plantings of all three of the milkweed species that are native to our area: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).  If you are able to find a monarch caterpillar egg or a tiny caterpillar on milkweed leaves, you can bring it and lots of fresh leaves inside in a mesh container to experience the mystery of its development first hand. Over a period of just 30 days, each of the four unique stages of the monarch’s development (egg, larva/caterpillar, pupa/chrysalis, butterfly) takes place. Witnessing any one of these transformations is a small miracle and a gift that brings awe and joy-filled surprise. See full color photos with text at The Life Cycle of the Monarch Butterfly with Pictures & Facts  from Active Wild and Migrating Monarchs: Monarch Life Cycle from Arizona State University.

The Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia and the Coordinators of the Glencarlyn Library Community Garden wish you beauty, mystery, magic, and happy surprises, in life, in your gardens, in this holiday time, and throughout the New Year!

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