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COLUMN: Early blooms not just forsythia

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By Jeneen Wiche

True to most springs in Kentuckiana one day is sunny and warm, the next cloudy and cold.  It’s an anxious time of the year for most gardeners as we watch the sun coax open a little patch of crocus or we catch sight of an old landscape filled with waves of blooming white snow drops.  Must we wait for the forsythia to bloom as we pray for warmth?  No, there are plenty of other early bloomers to keep us happily occupied until spring truly arrives.
Right now I am looking out the window watching our Cornus mas literally pop open.  I noticed the buds had begun to swell during last week’s warm spell and now it is in full bloom.  Cooler weather now will help to preserve the bloom.  
It is surprising we don’t see more Cornus mas, or cornelian cherry, in our landscapes; it is the perfect small tree with all kinds of ornamental value.  Disease and insects free, the cornelian cherry has mottled, peeling bark’ is the first tree to bloom in late winter or very early spring (and if the temperatures stay on the cool side the bloom time can last for weeks), and has lustrous foliage and red edible fruit in the summer.  
Although the cornelian cherry is not really a cherry, rather in the dogwood family, the tart fruit can be used to make anything you would use cherries in.  Fresh from the tree you will enjoy a tart treat; or add sugar and make a syrup for ice cream.  If you ever go to international markets, you will see the cornelian cherry in beverages and fruit spreads.
The genus Hamamelis, or witch hazel, has long been a favorite out here at the farm.  Some species bloom in late fall and early winter; others pop open on warm February days.  The bloom, best described as crimped, twisted and curled, by Chris Lane in his book “Witch Hazels,” has a whimsical quality.  The blooms also offer up a spicy fragrance in the garden when not much else is going on.  The different species have subtle differences; but on the whole, the genus is a large, vase-shaped shrub at maturity with excellent landscape value whether you are looking to naturalize or formalize the landscape.
I can’t say enough good things about witch hazels.  Sun or shade, average soil (certainly rich and well-drained is best), no pest problems, multi-seasonal interest and a selection that includes H. virginiana, the common American witch hazel that blooms in fall, H. japonica (Japanese witch hazel), H. mollis (Chinese witch hazel), H. vernalis (vernal witch hazel), and a group of hybrids represented by, H. x intermedia.
Corylopsis glabrescens, or the fragrant winter hazel, is from the same plant family as the witch hazel (Hamamelidaceae) and you can easily see the family resemblance in the foliage.  Most “hazels” have thick, sturdy leaves with a fluted quality to them…quite attractive, in fact.  The winter hazel has an open, sculptural quality to its habit, flat-topped but spreading.  It is a multi-stemmed shrub but can be trained into a single stem, small tree, with diligent pruning.  The plant does have multi-seasonal appeal but the best part about it happens in early spring.  Before the leaves emerge, the winter hazel is covered in pendulous pale-yellow blooms dangling from the wide reaching branches. It is nature at its finest.   
The winter hazel is virtually pest-free, likes rich, well-drained soil, full sun to part shade and is best situated in a protected area because it blooms so early for us.  Unlike the crimped, curled and twisted blooms of its cousin, the witch hazel:  a heavy April frost or freeze can damage the winter hazel’s blooms.