December 28

Holiday Red

At holiday time, I am sorry we don’t have more conifers at Duck Hill. Not because I want to see them in the garden particularly (most conifers seem to me out of place here), but because I wish I had them to pick for bouquets and wreaths and mantels. I make do with what we have, namely hemlock from our boundary hedge and yew from a conveniently overgrown specimen that was here when I came 32 years ago. Thankfully, we have broadleaf evergreens that offer branches and sprigs–boxwood, pieris, leucothoe, inkberry, rhododendron, and skimmia. They are the saving grace now, offering welcome patches of green in the gray and white winter landscape. And here and there, we have dashes of holiday red–berries, fruit, and branches, to cut for indoors or just savor their brilliance as we walk in the garden.


The winterberries, varieties of Ilex verticillata, have been especially floriferous this year, which is surprising when you remember how dry our early fall was, and knowing that their natural preference is for damp ground. I catch glimpses of their scarlet-studded branches in low-lying woods as I drive the country roads around here. But they seem to survive well enough in drier ground, as is the case here. Usually a flock of birds, often robins, has stripped our bushes by now, but this year they are still vivid with orange and red berries.


Our American cranberrybush, Viburnum trilobum, drips with lustrous fruit until sometime in dead winter when birds polish them off. Our bushes, planted as a screen by the road, are five to six feet in height, arching in habit, and decorated with these scarlet drupes starting in late summer. I love to cut sprigs to add to small bouquets of roses or dahlias.IMG_1871

The showiest of viburnums this time of year is V. dilatatum. This is a big shrub, to about seven or eight feet, rounded in habit, with masses of tiny deep red berries from early fall through much of winter. This is a stellar viburnum where you can use a big shrub, with handsome heart-shaped leaves, showy discs of white flowers, and then this painterly haze of red. I pick branches of the berries to mix with hydrangeas for bouquets in the fall and now to compliment those broadleaf evergreens.


Most of the hips on our roses have been gobbled up by now, or have shrivelled and turned brown. But a few still hold their brilliance–are they not as palatable for some reason?


I love the color of the shrub dogwoods in the winter garden–yellow-twigged, flaming orange, dark crimson. One small, shrubby tree stands out along our woodland path for the same reason. It is a maple in the moosewood family, called Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix,’ with rather spectacular white-striped, coral-red winter twigs. It isn’t big enough to dream of cutting. But I puposely take the path where it stands back to the house each afternoon to see it shimmer.


Happy New Year from Duck Hill.

January 12

English Weather

Despite a short spell of frigid cold, we have had so many days this early winter of mild weather with the thermometer hovering around fifty, early-blooming perennials and shrubs are lulled into thinking spring. I have never seen the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, flowering for the holidays as it does in England–until now. One patch opened shyly in late December, and now two patches are in full flower a good month and a half before they usually bloom. The difference between the  Northeast and Britain is that we don’t have consistently temperate weather, and those beautiful pink-tinged white saucers will inevitably get slammed by bitter cold, ice and snow later this month and in February. One of the things I most love about hellebores is how long their flowers linger, glamorously dressing our small strip of woodland all of March, April, and May. These Christmas roses might be exhausted by then.

December 22

Christmas Red

Our big winterberry bush (Ilex verticillata) cracked at its base, unable to withstand the weight of the snow in the freak October storm. Its branches are now added to the pile of debris from the storm waiting to be chipped, and their perfect,  round, glossy red berries–so treasured for Christmas decoration–are dry and shriveled. Usually I cut the winterberry branches I want for the holidays sometime in November before the birds get to them, for they are often picked clean by December. I store the fruited branches in a bucket of water until I need them. But this year, for that touch of red in holiday bouquets, I am relying on the linden viburnum, V. dilatatum ‘Erie,’ shown above, which is planted along our driveway and is still ladened with shiny fruit. The berries are small and slightly oval in shape, but born in such profusion they offer quite a show. This viburnum never looks shabby–the fruit will linger through most of winter, and the graceful mass of twigs on the eight-foot shrubs will be dressed all spring and summer with broad, lustrous, ribbed leaves. White discs of flowers cover the branches in May.