“Brand New,” “New and Improved,” “All New.”
We are all familiar with these advertising slogans. They must be effective because we keep hearing and seeing them, over and over again.
Lust for something new is not confined to our twenty-first century world but is rather an expression of an inherent human need which, in truth, can never be satisfied. In the opening lines of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes (1:8-9), King Solomon wrote of our “insatiable eye” and then observed that “there is nothing new under the sun.”
But in contrast to this sobering reality, there is the following inspiration from Marcel Proust, a French writer who lived from the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century. “The real voyage of discovery,” Proust wrote, “consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
In you are a gardener, winter is the season for putting on new glasses, for “having new eyes.” Although there are brilliant flashes of seasonal color this time of year — in poinsettias, cyclamens, and English primroses, for example — you will cherish familiar flowers so much more, seeing them with new eyes, when flowers in general are scarce.
Just the other day, I could not take my eyes off a window box of those classic zonal geraniums (Geranium hortorum), the red ones with orange undertones, next to some pink, followed by some white, ultimately punctuated by a single yellow marigold. (Incidentally, we call such geraniums “zonal” not on account of their flowers but because of their leaves, which display a distinctive band or zone near their leaf margins that darkens as foliage fades.) In the midst of May and June, the peak months for flowers in Los Angeles gardens, no special attention is given to geraniums or marigolds. But in winter, it’s a different story.
There is something singularly silky about geranium petals and then those marigold ruffles are truly extraordinary, I suddenly realized. I was also reminded that pink is the color which combines perfectly with every other, from red-orange to yellow.
No wonder Rosa mutabilis or butterfly rose is planted as an informal hedge, growing up to ten feet in height. Its flowers are yellow when they open, turning orange, and then various shades of pink. There is never a dull moment with this rose and its combination of color changes is instructive, since yellow, orange, and pink are all visible at the same time. If that color combination is good enough in a single flower it should be good enough for us when we design our own gardens. And, oh yes. I did not mention that there is one more color change in Rosa mutabilis, when the flowers finally turn from pink to crimson.
If you plant it, be aware that butterfly rose does have a lot of thorns, a liability when pruning but an asset when considering a living fence for security purposes. Butterfly rose — so-called because its upturned petals, at certain times, will remind you of butterflies — attracts birds, is pest free and fragrant, and blooms from spring to winter if not beyond.
The reason you see geraniums bloom in winter as well as in every other season is because they belong to a category of plants known as day neutral. Long day plants, such as sunflower, snapdragon, petunia, aster, pansy, and lobelia bloom sooner following days with more than 12 hours of light while short day plants, such as African marigolds, cosmos, chrysanthemum, and zinnias, favor days with less than 12 hours of light. Geraniums, impatiens, and begonias are day neutral, which means they will bloom regardless of day length. Of course, there are other factors that enhance or diminish flowering, such as air and soil temperature. California poppies, by the way, are long day plants, flowering most heavily after day length reaches 12 hours on March 21st.
Still, if you get tired of searching for color combinations that are perennially satisfying, you may opt for a scented garden, instead. Nearly all scented flowers are white, an example of nature’s economical bent. When it comes to flowers, nature must make an investment in characteristics that attract pollinators. Typically, this investment involves either color or scent, but not both, which is why very few flowers that have color — with the exception of hybridized roses — are scented, too.
The fragrant flowers that gardeners crave are nearly always white, including those found on citrus trees of every type, sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans), gardenia, night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), true jasmine (Jasminum nitidum, Jasminum sambac, Jasminum polyanthum), and magnolia. One of the exceptions is Michelia/Magnolia champaca, a tall shrub or small tree, reaching between ten and twelve feet at maturity, whose flowers are orange-yellow. This tree has become more popular in recent years. Its foliage might fool you into thinking it’s an avocado tree but its flowers have given it a reputation for being the most fragrant of all trees. It grows slowly, which may have inhibited its use, but should thrive anywhere in the San Fernando Valley. The pleasantly scented sweetshade tree (Hymenosporum flavum) has flowers that emerge white before turning yellow. Lavender, it must be said, with its pink, lavender, blue, or purple flowers (depending on species and variety) is the most famous exception to the general rule that fragrant flowers are white. English lavender (Lavender angustifolia), which is misnamed since it is native to France, is the most fragrant species and is the one that is most commonly used for perfume and other commercial purposes.
Tip of the Week: If you are looking for an intensely fragrant plant to climb and cover a chain link fence or drape itself over a block wall, consider pink jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum). Pink jasmine has no fear of heights, growing up to 20 feet. I have seen it planted at the base of those sky-high, bean-pole, mop-headed Mexican fan palms (Washingtonia robusta), where it obligingly covers their naked trunks with a layer of deep green, followed at winter’s end by a dense display of white flecked with pink.
With pink jasmine, it happens that the unopened flower buds are pink while the blossoms of the opened flowers are white. Flowering is primarily at winter’s end, but less intense blooming is known to occur at any time.
Pink jasmine should be cut back as soon as flowers fade to ensure another heavy crop of flowers the following year. Where pink jasmine is not annually pruned, winter flowering varies from one year to the next.