February tends to be a quiet time in the garden, with most plants still slumbering through winter, and the pines, spruces, hollies, and junipers providing the occasional spot of green. Though this may seem like a time for hibernating and preparing for spring, there are a few plants that put their efforts into the colder months.
The vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is a multi-branched shrub native to rocky streamsides in Missouri, with the unique aspect of flowering in mid-to-late winter. As the occasional warm days approach in February and March, small, spindly flowers unfurl along the spreading branches of the vernal witch hazel, resembling tiny ribbons dangling from the gray-brown stems. The flowers range in color from pure yellow to a copper-red but are most often yellow with a red center. Hamamelis vernalis blossoms will retract on colder days to avoid frost damage, unraveling at the sign of another warm winter afternoon – this helps to ensure that flowers are accessible only when pollinators are active, and extends the blooming period to last over the course of 4-6 weeks.
Powerfully fragrant, the cinnamon-sweet scent given off by the blooms of the vernal witch hazel serve to attract the infrequent pollinators that emerge on days at or above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Honey bees, along with some of our native bees (and even some butterflies), emerge from their burrows or hives to forage, cleanse, and stretch their wings on a rare day in late winter that warms above the 40 degree mark, and Hamamelis vernalis serves as an excellent buffet of pollen and nectar in an otherwise bleak time for pollinators. The Spring Azure butterfly uses the vernal witch hazel as its larval host. The witch hazel is an easily grown shrub, typically 6-10 feet tall with a slightly thinner spread. Hamamelis prefers full sun to part shade and will tolerate a variety of soils, though moisture is appreciated.
A shrub similar in shape and size to the vernal witch hazel, the American hazelnut puts on a slightly different show in late winter. While the fragrant, colorful blooms of Hamamelis are center-stage, the American hazelnut (Corylus americana) dangles countless catkins along its branches, which serve as a vital winter food source for Wild Turkey and the Ruffed Grouse. The textural show can be dazzling, especially if the hazelnut is planted with a lighter background, showcasing the suspended catkins as they dance in the slightest breeze. Corylus americana provides myriad benefits to wildlife: larvae of 14 different moth species feed on either the leaves or the nuts, the small-but-beautiful Juvenal’s Duskywing butterfly caterpillar feeds on the leaves, the hazelnuts are eaten by Ring-Necked Pheasant, Bobwhite Quail, Prairie Chicken, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, and Blue Jay, as well as chipmunks, squirrels, and mice. Occasionally, when American hazelnut grows near streams and ponds, beavers will feed on the stems and use them for construction. The hazelnuts are also edible to humans, though the familiar hazelnut flavoring is typically provided by the European filbert (Corylus avellana). This densely-branched, native shrub grows to 10 feet – rarely to 15 feet – and prefers full sun to part shade. American hazelnut is a suckering, thicket-forming shrub, though this is easily controlled by pruning suckers. Growing in a variety of habitats, Corylus americana is a low-maintenance shrub requiring little water once established.
In addition to our native shrubs seeking attention when the stage is otherwise empty, some species of exotic bulbs begin to put on a show as the weather warms in late winter. Crocuses (Crocus spp) are typically the first to bloom, though there are autumn-flowering crocuses as well. Available in shades of yellow, white, and purple, the spring crocus is a flamboyant, brightly-colored sight welcomed by the anxious gardener. Their thin, grass-like foliage – growing just a few inches high – is often lost in a mixed turf, until the bulbous blooms begin to emerge, erupting into a six-petal show of floral gaudiness at its best. Crocuses are excellent companions to other spring-flowering bulbs, and these dainty bulbs help to extend the spring bulb season earlier into the winter. Plant spring-flowering crocus in the fall, in high numbers to achieve maximum effect, and alongside your daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, and other spring bulbs. The early bloom period serves as a source of food for some pollinators, though our non-native honey bees seem to be the primary consumer. The familiar spice saffron is derived from Crocus sativus, an autumn-flowering crocus. Winter does not have to be drab, boring, and cold – your garden can be filled with scents and sights with the right combination of these unique plants!
Compiled by Cara L. Crocker