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Saugus Gardens in the Winter

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Here’s what’s blooming in town this week to make your walks more enjoyable


By Laura Eisener


Local birds, such as our state bird, the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), have a harder time finding food at this time of year since they may have already eaten most of the nuts and seeds found in the landscape. They flock around bird feeders most of the day. Sunflower seeds are beloved by a wide variety of birds. Despite their small size, chickadees have no trouble extracting the seeds from the shells, but some birds’ small beaks are not well adapted to cracking the shells so hulled sunflowers or sunflower “chips” may be easier for them.

In just a week it will be March 1, the start of meteorological spring. February’s full moon occurs tomorrow, February 24, and we have an extra day added to the month, February 29. Happy birthday to all the “leaplings,” who celebrate their birthday on that day!

Unlike last year when the snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) did not appear until March, this year some of them will live up to their nickname “Fair Maids of February.” If yours haven’t bloomed yet, it may be that they are in a cooler microclimate or that they are a later blooming variety like the giant snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii). The clump of snowdrops I noticed Sunday morning is on the southwest side of a house, so it receives reflected warmth from the foundation. Sunbeams shine on the south side longer in the northern hemisphere, while the north side of hills, trees and buildings are in shade much more of the day. This careful siting of the bulbs encourages them to bloom sooner than they might in other locations. They are under deciduous trees, so they get plenty of sunshine in winter and early spring, but by the time May arrives the emerging leaves give the snowdrop foliage the shade it prefers in summer.

Rhododendrons protect their leaves from drying out by curling up when the temperatures are very cold, as it has been for several of the days and nights this week. It takes them only a few hours to uncurl when the temperature rises, so you can get a general idea of how cold it is by just looking out the window at the leaves. Large-leaved rhododendrons like the many popular catawba hybrids (Rhododendron catawbiense and hybrids) and our native rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) will curl and uncurl several times during the winter, but their leaves stay green. Some of the small-leaved rhododendrons, such as P.J.M. rhododendron hybrids, turn burgundy or purplish for the winter but green up again in spring as they get ready to bloom. Despite the color change, they are still considered evergreens since the leaves are alive year-round and don’t drop off. If you look closely at the plants, you will see flower buds at the ends of the branches on all the rhododendron species now, as long as they were not pruned off at the wrong time this summer! Occasionally flower buds fail to develop if the shrubs lacked adequate nutrients, but in most cases when they have no flower buds visible in winter it is due to having been pruned after the buds formed.

Maria Caniglia, who greets visitors to Breakheart Reservation’s Visitor Center, graciously agreed to share pictures of her rhododendron, which blooms lavishly in early May. The deep pink of the blossoms suggests it is the variety ‘Aglo,’ which is a newer relative to P.J.M. – both developed by Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, Mass. She has a beautiful garden at her home and much to look forward to when spring arrives.


  Editor’s Note: Laura Eisener is a landscape design consultant who helps homeowners with landscape design, plant selection and placement of trees and shrubs, as well as perennials. She is a member of the Saugus Garden Club and offered to write a series of articles about “what’s blooming in town” shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was inspired after seeing so many people taking up walking.

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