Blooming winter wonders at the Crosby Arboretum

Published 3:02 pm Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Over the past few weeks, visitors to the Arboretum have been commenting on the many blooming plants seen along our trails. It all began with the sighting of some scattered golden blossoms on the Carolina yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) vine that scampers up the pine trees and over the shrubs found in our exhibits. Elliot’s blueberry (Vaccinium elliotii) is also in flowering along the pathways, adding a wow factor for visitors and local bees.

Lately, we have been double-checking our calendar to confirm what month we are in. It sure doesn’t seem like it’s time yet for all these spring blooms to be appearing. We’re accustomed to seeing the winter blooms of camellias in our home landscapes. However, during this warm January weather, early spring blooms are popping up everywhere – from the striking blooms on common ornamental trees gracing local yards, such as Japanese magnolia or oriental cherry, to the more subtle but equally beautiful native blooms found at the Arboretum.

Last week, grounds manager Terry Johnson reported that the white, showy blossoms are appearing on our mayhaws (Crataegus opaca). This small native tree will be familiar to many residents of Pearl River County. Mayhaw is found in the low, wet soils along stream and river banks, and swamps. It will also do fine on higher ground, and is a great addition to a backyard fruit collection.

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Mayhaw can also be used as a specimen in your home garden. And although it is thorny, folks are very forgiving, because this tree yields a very flavorful and positively addictive jelly. Visitors to our Piney Woods Heritage Festival, held in November, have reported that they look forward all year to the opportunity to take home some jelly from Myra Smith’s jams and jellies booth.

Last week, Terry brought in a bud he had picked from the southern crabapple tree (Malus angustifolia) at our front gate. The fruits are relished by local wildlife, and also by humans, because it can be cooked into some very tasty jelly or fruit butter. Like mayhaw, southern crabapple is also quite thorny, but it has very attractive pink blooms and is a dependable and popular specimen tree for the home landscape. We have occasionally grown some of these trees from seedlings at the Arboretum, and have discovered that we can successfully grow it to a nice marketable size, unlike our baby mayhaw trees that are apparently an ice cream crop to the local deer population and never attained a height taller than a few inches. 

The next time you visit the Arboretum and walk our Arrival Journey, as you cross over the bridge right before the Visitor Center, look to your left to the shallow ditch. Here, you will see the new flower spikes of an unusual native plant with broad leaves called golden club (Orontium aquaticum) emerging from the water. Golden club is found in swamps and areas of shallow water in our Coastal Plain. Another common name for this plant is neverwet, because water will bead up on the waxy, bluish-green leaves. When sunlight catches the leaves and flower spikes of this plant, it truly glows in the light. Although our plants thrive in the shifting shade of nearby tree canopies, golden club will also grow well in full sun. It is an excellent plant to use along the edges in your water garden. Ours are found growing with native irises and crinum lilies, great companion plants that will provide outstanding seasonal interest in your aquatic garden. All of these plants are commonly available at our summer Aquatic Plant Sales, the result of thinning out the plants in our Aquatic Exhibit.

The flowers of golden club are a bit more subtle than the other plants with winter interest on the Arboretum grounds. Usually during January, other types of seasonal interest are evident, such as the bright red berries found on the American holly trees, or on certain species of Smilax vine, also known as greenbriar or catbriar. You may know this vine as one that has nibbled at your knees if you have ever trekked through the woods. A garden club visitor from Ocean Springs once called it “wait a minute vine”, as in, “Wait a minute, I’m hung up on this.”

This will be the weekend that we have been looking forward to for quite a while. Two fun and informative programs will be conducted by knowledgeable individuals. If you’ve ever wanted to know more about the history of our local landscapes and the plants that populate them, this is your chance! Learn the secrets for identifying trees and shrubs in winter from MSU Extension forester Dr. Glenn Hughes on a field walk that will begin at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday. Tate Thriffiley, ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, will then present a talk and short field walk at 1:00 p.m. focused on ecology, sustainable forestry activities, and the history of the Piney Woods region. The program fee for each event is $5, and free to Arboretum members. For more information, or to sign up, call the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311.

The Arboretum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For more information on the Arboretum, please see our website at

For further exploration: Search the Internet for information on how to grow mayhaws in the home garden, the various cultivars available, and jelly recipes. If you know someone who has native mayhaws growing on their property, ask them if you can collect some fruit to make jelly. Remember to bring them a jar of jelly and maybe even some homemade biscuits. Mayhaw fruit-gathering and jelly-making is a wonderful family activity that can result in lasting memories for your children or grandchildren.