Tag Archives: native plants

Featured Plant: Witch Hazel

It’s noon, and it’s 12 degrees, but it’s sunny with no wind… so I went out to the garden to look for signs of spring….crazy, I know. I stepped in a snowbank over my knees but then was able to walk on top of the two or so feet of frozen snow on the ground. I wanted to look at the ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel over by the gazebo. It has skinny little yellow flowers with a light fragrance, and like all the witch hazels, blooms very early. Today I saw just the tiniest bit of yellow peeking out from between the scales of the flower buds. That’s a good sign! From the sidewalk on Upper College Road I looked closely at the ‘Jelena’ witch hazel , another very early bloomer. It is at the same stage as ‘Arnold Promise’, with about a millimeter of orange petal showing. Our third witch hazel is the native Ozark witch hazel, with slightly smaller flowers but much more fragrance. I did not see any sign that it is waking from it’s long winter’s nap just yet.

arnold promise witch hazel

‘Arnold Promise’, Hamamelis x intermedia, March 25, 2014

Hamamelis , the genus of witch hazels, are hardy, low maintenance plants with few pest problems. Whether you think of them as small trees or large shrubs, they are a manageable size at 10 to 15 feet, with some spreading forms nearly as wide. They have smooth, rather plain brown-to-gray bark and heavily textured oval leaves, which turn mostly yellow in fall. And then there’s the reason we love them: spidery, strappy little flowers with long, crinkly petals, all along the branches, when almost nothing else is blooming.

witch hazel jelena

‘Jelena’, Hamamelis x intermedia, February 28, 2011

Hamamelis virginiana, native to eastern North America, blooms around November, and is the plant used for the witch hazel extract you can buy at your local drugstore.

Hamamelis vernalis is native to stream banks of the south-central US. It is the earliest shrub to flower in spring, and its small, yellow-red blooms open  from late February to early April, depending on the weather. It can form dense, multi-stemmed colonies  by sending out suckers. The medium green leaves turn golden yellow in fall. Our Ozark witch hazel is H. vernalis, and when it blooms it smells like springtime!

Hamamelis x intermedia are vigorous hybrid witch hazels, crosses of the Japanese and Chinese species. Blooming from late February to March, their yellow-red petals unfurl on warm days but curl up tightly during chilly nights. The fall foliage is an attractive yellow-orange. Our ‘Arnold Promise’ and ‘Jelena’ are both H. x intermedia. They are sure signs that spring is on it’s way. Take a walk through the Botanical Gardens in the next few weeks (wear your boots) and you’ll find the earliest flowers on the witch hazel, a treat for the winter-weary and anyone ready longer, warmer days.

ozark witch hazel

H. vernalis, February 22, 2012


Featured Plant: Mountain Laurel

Yesterday, I was doing my best to have a real day off.  Most of the family (missing the one off at college!) was home so we cranked up the woodstove against the damp chill and sat around. I did some knitting but then true to form got restless and had to head outside. Bundled up, I walked through the back and out around the edge of the turf fields. Then up along the side of one pond and away from the road to head to the edge of another pond deep in the woods. Most of this area between the ponds is filled with Mountain Laurel. What a beautiful plant! With so many trees bare of leaves, this lovely evergreen shrub with twisting branches really stood out in yesterday’s dull overcast light.

kalmia latifoliaKalmia latifolia is an Ericaceous plant native to the eastern United States, from Maine to Florida. In my mind it is associated with Rhododendrons (and they are closely related), but Mountain Laurel generally grows at higher elevations and tolerates drier soil.  It is a slow-growing understory shrub here, although farther south it does reach tree size. Kalmia flowers in late May/early June, often heavily. The flowers  of the native species range from white to pink, with variable red markings.

kalmia latifolia

photo courtesy of Connecticut Botanical Society

kalmia latifolia

photo courtesy Janet Novak

Spring time and flowers are far off, but even in winter, I find Kalmia beautiful. As the PlantFinder says, it’s a

…”Superior flowering native shrub for groups or massing in shrub borders, cottage gardens, woodland areas or wild/naturalized areas. Compliments rhododendrons and azaleas.”

In any area with acidic soil, some moisture, and a bit of shade, it will do well. In the swampy woods of southern Rhode Island, it’s a treat to see even on the greyest day.

mountain laurel


I had the good fortune this weekend to be in a very beautiful place:yawgoo pondyawgoo pondIt looks like Maine, but is actually close to home here in Rhode Island.

There were some fantastic looking mushrooms which popped up after the late afternoon squall on Friday:cortinarius iodescortinarius iodes

I am pretty sure it is Cortinarius iodes, the Viscid Violet Cort (!) Cortinarius iodes forms mycorrhizal associations with deciduous  trees, particularly oaks.

Other plants caught my eye–moss growing among the tree roots like a landscape:


A fuzzy/spiny white caterpillar on the bayberry near the edge of the water:

hickory tussock mothI think it is Lophocampa caryae, the hickory tussock moth. Plenty of hickory around the pond, as well as oak, white pine, and swamp maple.

deer printsDeer left footprints on the sandy edge of the pond, although I did not see them. I heard barred owls in the night, and coyotes.

“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.”

Sweet Pepper Bush

clethra alnifoliaClethra alnifolia is the scientific name for the plant I learned as Sweet Pepper Bush. It’s also called Summersweet. As you can figure from the common names, it smells sweet, and the bees love it. If I remember correctly from my beekeeping days, it makes a clear thin watery honey. Another name I have heard is Indian Soap, and it’s true that if you take a few flowers and rub them between your hands with water, they will create “soap suds”.

Clethra has long-lasting spikes of white flowers in August which attract butterflies as well as bees. The leaves are a dark glossy green, turning yellow in the fall. The flower spikes are followed by spikes of little seed pods which resemble peppercorns. Clethra is a native plant here in Rhode Island. It is abundant in moist, acidic soil in partial shade such as woodland edges, stream and pond banks, swampy areas, and wet meadow edges. Although it loves moisture, it is drought tolerant once established. It spreads by suckers and makes dense thickets, but doesn’t mind being pruned. A great feature of Clethra for the garden is that it blooms in the shade.

clethra alnifolia

Courtesy of CT Botanical Society

There are a number of cultivars which have been developed for landscapes, although to me the straight species is lovely in the garden. One is ‘Ruby Spice’ , which has pink flowers instead of white, and another is ‘Hummingbird’, which tops out at about three to four feet, instead of the twelve to fifteen feet that the species can attain. Both are here in the Botanical Gardens, along with the native Clethra alnifolia.

clethra alnifolia ruby spiceWalking by the Clethra last week, I got a nose full of the lovely sweet fragrance.  It is blooming earlier than usual, like many plants this year. For me, the smell of the Sweet Pepper Bush is forever linked to the start of school. It grows at the edge of our yard and I could always smell it as the boys waited for the bus on the first day of school ( tho it’s way too early for that bittersweet “back to school” feeling!) It is remarkable how strongly certain smells are linked with certain memories. Apparently the olfactory part of the brain is closely related to the memory and emotion part of the brain. One article I read said that people born before 1930 had more memories associated with smells from nature than people born later. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/intelligenceandmemory/nostalgicsmells.shtml)

clethra alnifoliaIn addition to it’s many attributes — appealing flowers, fragrance, attraction to pollinators, shade tolerance — Clethra is also virtually disease and pest free. It is also salt tolerant, making it a good choice for coastal landscapes.

Go Native!

removing sodOn October 17th, junior Kristie Saliba’s URI 101 class began installation of a “Native Plant System” in the URI Botanical Gardens. These students are interested in the Environmental Horticulture and Turf major, and it was a great hands-on experience  for them. The first part of the job was to prepare the site, and like any job done well, it’s all in the prep! Kristie’s students spent about three hours removing sod and spreading our own Botanical Gardens compost on the area. Mike and Kyle pitched in to help, as well as Kate Venturini, who designed the garden (and is the brains behind the Landscape Restoration Program at the Outreach Center).

kristie removing sodWhen the site was ready, volunteers from the URI Master Gardener’s Association began  planting. Native asters, goldenrod, and spiraea were donated by Rhody Native, the Rhode Island-grown native plants initiative. Vaccinium corymbosum (Highbush Blueberry),  Lindera benzoin (Spicebush), and Arctostaphyllos uva-ursi (Bearberry) were donated by the URI Botanical Gardens. The installation will be completed next week, and while some of the perennials are still small, they are off to a great head start with fall planting.

spreading compostOf course, there are many native plants already in the Botanical Gardens, as well as beautifully adapted, non-invasive plants from other parts of the world. But natives are a fundamental part of the landscape, which this garden will highlight. As I explained on the garden tours this summer, “Native plants feed native insects, and native insects feed native birds and amphibians, and you can just follow that right up the food chain.”  A simple way to understand the importance of these sometimes overlooked plants in caring for our landscape and environment.

spreading compost

And now for something completely different…

hamamelis 'jelena'

hamamelis 'jelena'Ahhh! In spite of the snow/cold/rain/thaw the Witchhazel is flowering right on time. On Upper College Road, the cultivar ‘Jelena’ is  beginning to open with red and orange flowers that always remind me of “blow-out” party favors.  Over near the gazebo, ‘Arnold Promise’, from the Arnold Arboretum, has yellow flowers and a pleasing fresh light scent. The very tips of the yellow petals are just beginning  to peek out from the buds.

“Jelena and ‘Arnold Promise’ are both cultivars of Hamamelis x intermedia, a cross between Hamamelis mollis, the Chinese Witchhazel, and Hamamelis japonica, Japanese Witchhazel. There is also a Witchhazel native to Eastern North America: Hamamelis virginiana, which blooms in late fall. Its  yellow flowers have a slight fragrance. Hamamelis vernalis is native to central North America. It begins flowering in late winter or  early spring with fragrant yellow and red flowers.

All the witchhazels are  shrubs or small trees, growing to about 12 feet tall at the most. Although mainly the cultivars are sold and planted, they all make wonderful additions to the home landscape. I would plant them solely for the fact that they flower in winter. (It’s certainly not early spring yet!) The added bonus is that Witchhazels also have nice yellow autumn foliage and are for the most part insect and disease free. hamamelis 'arnold promise'

Witchhazel is also known as a medicinal plant. An extract is distilled from the twigs and used as an astringent for insect bites, poison ivy, and other skin irritations. I just found out that almost all the Witchhazel extract sold in the United States today is manufactured by one company and most of the harvest is from northwestern Connecticut. Who would have guessed!

So on a “thaw” day like today (44 degrees!) take a walk and keep your eyes open for those narrow, crinkly petals suspended on bare branches.   Whether it’s a native  or a well-adapted cultivar, Witchhazel flowers in February lift my spirits with thoughts of spring.