Make it green: Mid-winter flowers

Tropical snowball (Dombeya x "Seminole"

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Tropical snowball (Dombeya x "Seminole"

Before we get down to business, a short announcement: My readers already know my commitment to healthy living. As a confirmed vegan, I can attest to the benefits of a plant-based diet. March 20 is the 27th annual National Meat Out Day. Give it some thought — for your health and to stop beastly treatment of animals. Want to know more? See my website (www.msadesign.com).

Finding winter flowers

It’s a reasonable question, too, especially from many of my homeowner association clients, all of whom try to do a good job taking care of hundreds of thousands of dollars in planting improvements. They are handicapped by lack of knowledge about plant material. More deeply, though, is the misunderstanding that low maintenance requires very good design.

Still, many of our condominiums are populated by seasonal residents, all of whom rightly want to see flowers in winter.

These Yankees make the issue much more difficult, too, because our northern climes are populated with stunningly beautiful flowering shrubs and trees that simply will not grow here: the Japanese and saucer magnolias, the spireas; the rhododendrons … it’s a long list.

All is not lost. I tell my students that we have 3,500 commonly available plants in Florida. Our plants are incredibly inexpensive, too. In fact, the cost of plant material have not changed very much in the 30 years I have been working. In 1980, one could buy a 3-gallon plant wholesale for about $3.50; now, that same plant is — $3.50.

When Is winter?

Florida has a 10½-month growing season. Each winter, about 6 weeks or so are too cold for plants to grow. This period shifts slightly from year to year. Let’s call the period from late November to mid-March “winter”; this is horticulturally sensible and congruent with winter residence. Yes, there are a few magnificent flowering trees that miss this cut, particularly the Golden Rain Tree and the Jacaranda. But there are plenty of others.

Among the trees, start with Hong Kong orchid. This one (Bauhinia x blakeana) is sterile and much neater than some of the trees you see around town. Its robust purple flowers look look like orchids and have a mild fragrance from July to March. Among smaller trees is cassia (Senna surrattensis) covered with bright yellow flowers in early winter, and the native yellow elder (Tecoma stans), also showing bright yellow flowers. Among the deciduous trees, we have the pink tabebuia and the silk floss Tree (Ceiba speciosa).

Shrubs and vines

Dwarf Hamelia (Hamelia patens) is a native blooming most of the winter; it’s a large, mounding shrub, perhaps 5 feet by 5 feet and beloved by hummingbirds. Giant Iris (Neomarica caerulea) produces huge, purple flowers in December.

Among the larger plants, don’t miss tropical snowball (Dombeya x “Seminole”), a large, coarse textured shrub with stunning pink to red flowers in December to January that also flowers in mid-summer. The Chinese hat plant (Holmskioldia sanguinea) is a rambling shrub with quick growth and some salt tolerance. It’s the unique flower that is of interest.

Many times, clients tell me that they don’t want any “common” plants. It’s understandable, too, but on the other hand, properly used and massed, even ubiquitous plants are stunning. Three winter examples:

■ muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), with soft, pink flower stalks

■ thryallis (Galphimia gracilis), a beautiful subject when allowed to billow out to 8 feet by 8 feet

■ crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii), especially the new hybrids, is quite reliable and about 18 feet high. All are quite effective in large monocultural beds.

Beginning in January, Blue Sage (Eranthemum pulchellum) will add the deep blue flowers that are so difficult to find. This is a salt tolerant shrub reaching 4’ or so. Powder Puff (Calliandra haematocephala) is large, to about 10 feet by 10 feet, with an annual show of bright red to pink puff balls, and sometimes pruned quite effectively to a patio tree form.

Flame Vine (Pyrostegia venusta), while an ordinary plant of questionable appearance most of the year, puts on a bright orange show in mid-January. At the same time, two other vines with better manners and worth considering: the Chalice Vine (Solandra grandiflora) is a robust and woody vine with huge, pale yellow, bell-shaped flowers, while the Bengal creeper (Thunbergia grandiflora) has a large, pastel flowers on a quite manageable vine.

Of course, the Angel wing begonia (Begonia odorata) is very dependable all winter with small white flowers and a modest fragrance. And bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) begins a very long flowering season in early February.

Also beginning in February we are treated to the “Shower of Orchids” (Congea tomentosa). The Botanical Garden has one specimen, and I have asked some growers to find more of these. Readers have also asked where to find the wonderful royal creeper (Oxera pulchella). I am told by one of my favorite suppliers that he has located a mothe’ plant and has put up cuttings, to be ready in the summer.

As the days become warmer, the pink tabebuia (this is a big tree) wakes to a glorious spring. So too bougainvillea, especially the prostrate “Helen Johnsom.” The 8- by 8-foot starburst flower (Clerodendrum quadriloculare) belongs back along a fence where a buffer is needed.

There are so many more

■ Beauty berry (Callicarpa americana) is a deciduous favorite with clusters of purple fruit;

■ Stigmaphyllon sagraeanum shows a riot of yellow flowers in a modest vine;

■ The native Lantana produces a bundle of purple flowers;

■ Bleeding Heart Vine (Clerodendrum thompsoniae) flowers all winter;

■ Desert senna is every bit a miniature tree with very sweet yellow flowers;

■ For those hungering for suburb trellis vine,, Queen’s Wreath (Petrea voluble) begins a wonderful display of deep purple flowers.

Are there more? Oh yes. Look for monthly columns on flowering plants as I try to get more of them into print. Until then, do check my website for more plants.

Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture for 28 years and is president of MSA Design, Inc. Web site: www.msadesign.com

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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