Early March in bloom

Flowers of sweetbox (Sarcococca humilis, below) are small and unremarkable to the eye, but reportedly carry a strong scent, which unfortunately is unnoticed by my scent challenged nose. Still, all flowers in late winter are appreciated no matter their size, and the glossy, evergreen foliage of the low, spreading shrub is pleasant enough throughout the year. Very slow to get started, some steam is eventually gathered, and now I gleefully prune out underground stems that invade gaps between stones in the adjacent path. The clump of several small shrubs has spread into a rounded mass, and only when temperatures dropped to seven below zero several years ago did the sweetbox show even the slightest sign of unhappiness.

Perhaps my expectations were skewed to anticipate the worst, but the wait for small shrubs to fill this space did not seem extraordinarily long. Perhaps this cool, partially shaded spot bordering a narrow, constructed creek (below) is ideal for promoting growth of sweetbox. In another spot with deeper shade, the shrub grows slightly slower with more open branching, with darker foliage in more adverse circumstances beneath a spruce, but still not so slow to be discouraging. Peak flowering in this shadier location is a week later, though in a colder winter flowers have been earlier since the location is protected closer to the house.

Sweetbox thrives planted along this shaded stream.

A year ago, flowering of sweetbox (and many other early flowers) was disappointing after an unusually mild February that pushed too many trees and shrubs to flower weeks early. Flowers of cherries and magnolias (and sweetbox) were damaged in a two week period of cold in mid March. Again this year, March is proving colder than February, but happily, three seventy degree days late in the month were not enough to encourage significant growth to be injured by sub freezing overnight temperatures.

Scarlet O’Hara pieris thrives in well drained soil beside the koi pond in nearly full sun.

Through mild or cold winters, varieties of Pieris (Pieris japonica and others) flower consistently beginning early March. Flowering time appears to be related more to hours of sunlight than temperature. Pieris is commonly, but incorrectly identified as Andromeda, which is another, dissimilar shrub. A more correct, but wordy, common name is Lily of the Valley shrub. The flowers are similar in appearance to Lily of the Valley (Convallaria), though most Pieris shrubs grow many times larger than the perennial, and several cultivars are treasured as much for colorful foliage as their flowers.

Dorothy Wycoff pieris is the favored cultivar in this garden with distinctive red flower buds, and medium red new foliage that fades to green. It is minimally bothered by lacebugs.

In any case, several Pieris are flowering in early March, with others not far behind. As with many others in this garden, a modest collection of ten or twelve species and cultivars grows with varied successes. Pieris is sensitive to soil moisture, and several have failed over the years in poorly drained areas of clay soil. The shrubs that survive require little attention, though lacebugs are a problem of varying degrees among the varieties.

Dorothy Wycoff pieris grows to a full eight feet tall, though not quickly.

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