Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spring-blooming trees

The flowers on an ornamental pear tree

Tulips, daffodils and other bulbs are all very nice when spring comes to town. To really make an impact, though, you need a flowering tree -- whether it's a magnolia, redbud, ornamental cherry, ornamental pear or crabapple.

I usually get a full month's worth of bloom out of these stalwarts in my garden. Not this year. Courtesy of the record-high temperatures, the magnolia has already finished its show in less than a week. My weeping ornamental cherry and ornamental pear are in full bloom while the redbud and crabapple are only a few days behind.

The cherry tree (prunus subhirtella var. pendula) is especially lovely this year. It has been through some exceptionally tough times --- drought the first year followed by cicadas and webworms. It generally hasn't produced a lot of flowers...that is, until this year. The mild winter has resulted in a veritable fountain of flowers that glow in the morning sun.

The flowers on a weeping ornamental cherry tree

Ornamental cherries should be in vogue this year, what with the 100th anniversary of Washington, D.C.'s  famous trees.  They can be a lovely focal point in the right spot. In the Chicago area, that may mean planting them in a location that's sheltered from the worst of the winter winds. They prefer full sun but will take part shade and they like their roots moist, but not wet.

There have been some promising new introductions in recent years  Among weeping cherries, there's Pink Snow Showers (prunus subhirtella 'Pisnshzam') and Weeping Extraordinaire (prunus serrulata 'Extrazam'). The latter, which has extra large double pink flowers, was among the plants featured in the "Sweet Melissa" fashion show at the National Green Centre in January.

In addition, there's the Royal Burgundy (prunus serrulata 'Royal Burgundy'), an upright ornamental cherry with reddish purple leaves and deeper pink flowers.

And, of course, you could always plant an Okame cherry, just like those around D.C.'s Tidal Basin. (Yes, they are hardy in Chicago.)

Ornamental pears

Ornamental pear trees (pyrus calleryana) are easy to spot in the landscape this time of year with their white flowers and "teardrop" shape. They often are mistaken for crabapples because the fruits, or "pomes," look a lot alike. The leaves of an ornamental pear are glossy, however, unlike those of a crabapple.

A  callery pear tree in my backyard

Many homeowners ask for a Bradford callery pear when they go shopping at a nursery. That particular variety, however, is no longer widely grown. Bradford, while beautiful, has been known to split because of the narrow angles where the branches divide from the trunk. Varieties that are now generally available include Aristocrat, Cleveland Select and Chanticleer, all of which are longer-lived and more stable.

Callery pears in general are fast growers and can top out at more than 30 feet when mature. They need full sun and will tolerate many different soils and pollution -- making them a good urban tree.


Eastern redbuds (cercis canadensis) are wonderful small trees with heart-shaped leaves and rosy violet flowers to die for.  Their branches have an interesting, almost zig-zag growth habit that provides winter interest.  

It's an "understory" tree, topping out at about 15 to 25 feet.  Redbuds will take part shade and are stunning in woodland or naturalized gardens. There are several cultivars available besides the straight species including Alba, a white version; Covey, a weeping variety; and Forest Pansy, which has purple leaves. Redbuds sometimes needs a more protected site in the Chicago area as they don't like windy, exposed sites. That's especially true for Forest Pansy.

Combining redbuds with ornamental pears can make a fantastic combination, as seen this past weekend at Millennium Park in downtown Chicago.

Redbuds and ornamental pears created this Impressionistic tableau
Sunday on the Chase Promenade in Chicago's Millennium Park.

Here's hoping that the cooler temperatures forecast for this coming week will keep these wonderful flowers on the trees longer than was possible with the magnolias. Their color and exuberance are inspiring!

By Karen Geisler

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The First Day of Spring

Leonard Messel magnolia in bloom
A Leonard Messel magnolia in bloom on the first day of spring

Spring officially arrived in Chicago today with sunglasses, shorts and a sudden surge of flowers.

With a high temperature of 85 degrees, it felt more like a day in June than March. That was especially true in the garden where my magnolia burst into full bloom several weeks ahead of schedule and my weeping cherry tree started budding out.

Buds on a weeping cherry first day spring
Buds on a weeping cherry tree
Crocuses, a sure sign of spring, have already vanished thanks to the seven-day heat wave. Daffodils that were just poking their heads above ground last week are now resplendent in their yellow finery. And the flower buds on my tulips are starting to swell.

Unfortunately, it looks like this garden party may be about to end.

Colder temperatures are forecast starting Friday, with highs only in the 60's. That will be a welcome relief as it has never been this hot this soon in Chicago before.

I'm just hoping the night-time temperatures won't dip below the 40's now expected. If we get frost, all of my spring flowers will be little more than a memory.

Of course, that also may be true even with the cooler temperatures, which would still be above normal. All of my spring bloomers will be finished in a week or two at this rate. What will sustain me for the 90+ days remaining until summer officially arrives?

Guess I'll just have to cross my fingers and hope that some spring bloomers will be available for sale at my favorite nursery in the weeks ahead. It was too wet in my garden this past weekend to work on my spring clean up so I will definitely need some inspiration in order to finish.

Let's see....I still have to cut down last year's dead foliage, pick up the dried leaves, remove the chickweed, dig out the Queen Ann's lace that blew in from my neighbor's yard, finish the edging, spread the compost, prune my hydrangeas, start my vegetable seeds....

Hyacinths daffodils first day spring
Hyacinths and daffodils in the garden on the first day of spring.

By Karen Geisler

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hort Couture: Chicago Flower & Garden Show

A flower mannequin at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show

The Chicago Flower and Garden Show, being held at Navy Pier now through March 18, is celebrating flowers and fashion with this year's theme, "Hort Couture."

In addition to the many show gardens, there were several fashion-forward displays as a result.

The Chicago Park District's display

Of course, there are lots and lots of spring bulbs. The perfume of the tulips and hyacinths permeates whole sections of Navy Pier.
A fringed tulip

A double tulip

Mango tulips

Tulips and hyacinths, a very fragrant combination

There are also many great tablescapes.....

Plus there are two very special gardens -- one built to resemble the "Let's Move" kitchen garden outside the White House....

And another honoring the long-running NBC daytime drama, "The Days of Our Lives." It includes original props from the show plus the wedding gowns from four of the show's weddings.

One of the most breathtaking features is right at the entrance, a giant agapanthus sculpture by Britain's Jenny Pickford, a blacksmith and glassblower.

Back by a giant green wall, the 14' tall sculpture of forged steel and glass towers over visitors. It is 11 feet wide and weighs 1,100 pounds.

Show hours are from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission prices vary from $15 to $19 for adults, depending on whether tickets are bought online or at the box office and whether they are for a weekday or weekend. Children ages 4 to 12 are $5 apiece.
By Karen Geisler

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Winter Redux

Witchhazel blooming in the snow

Just when you think it is safe to start getting out in the garden again, Mother Nature always seems to remind you who's boss.

This winter has been extremely mild in Chicago and there was no snow left when a major storm hit yesterday. This is the result. Of course, the temperature is supposed to reach 57 degrees by Tuesday, so it will all be gone soon.

Meanwhile, the heavy wet snow has crushed what's left of my ornamental grasses and weighed down the boughs of my (formerly) columnar white pine. It has coated each and every branch and twig with an icy reminder of what this winter should have been but wasn't.

I've always thought it appropriate that March was named after Mars, the Roman god of war. It seems like winter and spring are constantly sparring this month to see who will get the upper hand. Winter always loses but that doesn't stop their constant bickering.

All I can do at this point is sit back and watch the battle begin.

By Karen Geisler
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