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Notes from the Garden - February, March, April 2014

This time of year can be frustrating for gardeners: we begin in the midst of late winter and end with the glorious awakening of spring. Days when we don’t want to venture outside are followed by sunny warm days that beckon us out into the Garden. Instead of featuring specific plants this issue, I am going to share a few of my favorite places in the Garden to explore and to watch as winter turns into spring and the Garden wakes up from a long winter’s nap.

February: Dogwood Trail
The Dogwood Trail is a wonderful example of highland rim forest with an overstory of oak, hickory, persimmon, tulip poplar and eastern red cedar. This deciduous canopy creates a perfect dappled shade environment for growing dogwood, camellia, azalea, hosta and boxwood. While the trail peak bloom is late March to early April, the cold, wintry days of February are a perfect  time to explore the wonder of a woodland forest. Moreover, it is an excellent opportunity to see some unusual boxwood cultivars that the Garden has on site for evaluation. More than 10 years ago, Mr. Paul Saunders of Saunders Brothers Nursery of Piney Ridge, Virginia, invited the Garden to be part of a network of botanical gardens, arboreta, universities and extension research stations to plant, test and evaluate more than a dozen cultivars of boxwood. The Garden has contributed data for the 2006 and 2011 reports.

On the upper Dogwood Trail just past the belvedere is a planting of many boxwood cultivars. In this area you can see the distinct differences among the selections, especially dwarf forms such as ‘Justin Brouwers,’ ‘Kingsville Dwarf’ and ‘Morris Midget.’ I particularly like the upright form of ‘Dee Runk.’ It is through test and evaluation plots like this that the Garden is able to fulfill part of its mission that relates to research.  

March: Mathews Nature Trail
In March the Mathews Nature Trail begins to come alive with color and texture. As the days lengthen and the sun shines brighter and warmer, wildflowers begin to open. Even when temperatures are still cold in early March, hepatica and bloodroot often open with pure white flowers to say spring is just around the corner. Then ensues a steady progression of blooms, including foamflower, shooting star, Indian pink, woodland phlox, celandine poppy and on and on. It is amazing to think of this woodland trail, once overgrown with privet, honeysuckle and poison ivy, transformed into its sheer beauty in early spring. Many wildflowers planted here were relocated to the Garden from another home, just as many of our members and volunteers are transplants to Huntsville. Members of the Wildflower Society lovingly rescued many of our first plantings from areas that were to become houses and brought them to their new home at the Garden.  Needless to say these wildflowers have taken to their new home and have flourished under the loving care of the Garden Grubbers led by Ms. Dene Mathews.

A special area of the Mathews Nature Trail is the Holmes Trillium Garden, where a collection of native trillium species has been planted. Under the direction of trillium expert Harold Holmes, the Garden has an extensive collection of trillium species and forms that are amazing to see in one place. One would have to travel far and wide to see as many different forms and species of trillium as you can see right here in the Garden. This fabulous botanical collection is one way in which the Garden fulfills its mission as it relates to collections.

April: Bush Azalea Trail
We have mentioned on several occasions the amazing diversity and variety of azaleas that are planted throughout the Garden. No garden in the south would be caught dead without azaleas and that includes ours. However, what has been planted in our Garden, especially in the Bush Azalea Trail, is a collection of native azaleas, numerous hybrids and cultivars of distinction that rival any other collection in the US. I know that is a big statement, but I truly believe that this trail, along with other plantings throughout the Garden, will become a primary reason for visitors to flock to the Garden each spring as these beautiful plants peak. In just two short years, the number of plantings has increased tremendously, and it will just take time now to let them grow and flourish in this wonderful, woodland environment.

I am especially excited about the specialty hybrids displayed at the Garden. One group in particular is hybrids developed by the late Dr. R. Oneal Smitherman of Auburn University. Smitty, as he was known to his friends, was a fisheries expert who loved azaleas. In his retirement he traveled the state looking for native azaleas in the wild and selecting seed from unusual forms he encountered. Over the years he planted those seeds, made crosses in his own garden, and then selected plants that showed great promise. Some he named, while others still have just a number for reference. Vernon Bush was a great friend of Smitty and, through this friendship, the Garden is fortunate and pleased to have many of Smitty’s hybrids happily growing in our Garden. Must-see azaleas for Auburn fans include ‘Aubie’ and ‘War Eagle’ when they bloom this April.