Arbo Paths: More native winter bloomers

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, February 11, 2015

If you notice a red maple tree bedecked in scarlet, take a closer look to see if it is sporting red blooms, or the later double-winged samaras. (Photo by

If you notice a red maple tree bedecked in scarlet, take a closer look to see if it is sporting red blooms, or the later double-winged samaras. (Photo by

I remember a test long ago that asked us to list the names of five plants that bloom in winter. Could you answer this question? We would have an easier time doing this in our coastal South, as we live far away from lands that must endure weeks, sometimes months, of snowy winters when no flower in its right mind would dare poke its head out to take a look around.

Last week in this column, red maple was mentioned as a native tree species that has already begun its late winter show of red flowers. This week I’ve noticed several more red maples springing into bloom on travels down local highways and along Arboretum paths. Many of us may equate these colorful trees with their scarlet wing-shaped fruit, called samaras, sometimes seen blanketing the ground, and may not realize that these seed structures follow a show of red flowers. So, if you notice a tree all decked out in red, get closer and take a closer look at these truly dramatic and quite beautiful flowers.

Red maple is a dependable, fast-growing tree that is attractive in all seasons. It will prosper on a wide variety of sites, in sun or part shade, wet or dry areas, and will typically grow between 40 to 50 feet tall. The tree makes a great choice for gardeners who say they can’t grow anything. A variety called “swamp red maple” (Acer rubrum var. drummondii) is found in our coastal areas on moist, swampy sites, with leaves that are fuzzy, or downy, on the undersides. The variety was named for Scottish naturalist Thomas Drummond, who collected many plants during the early 1800’s in the southern U.S.

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The bark of red maple is also attractive and early settlers used this bark to make ink and also for dark-colored dyes for fabrics and yarn. The tree is easy to identify because it often has red coloration, from its flowers and seeds, to the emerging new leaves. The leaves usually have red petioles, which is the botanical name for the stalk that attaches the leaf to the stem. In fall, however, the tree really earns its name with its ruby leaf red coloration.

Another early bloomer found in the Savanna Exhibits are sunbonnets (Chaptalia tomentosa), small white flowered dandelion-like perennials. Even though we recently conducted prescribed burns of our grassland exhibit, herbaceous plants like sunbonnets that lie close to the ground are largely undisturbed, as the fire was carried by the dry grasses and taller plant material in these areas.

What is unusual about sunbonnets is that their flower heads will follow the sun as it travels from east to west during the day. I remember another lesson I learned about this plant on an overcast day, soon after I had arrived at the Arboretum. I set out to take photographs of a group of sunbonnets I knew were growing in the savanna near our ticket booth, but when I arrived, I learned that these flowers close up on gray days. Needless to say, they were not photogenic!

One of the sweetest little flowers, and so often overlooked, are the delicate white flowering bog violets (Viola lanceolata) that are seen along the edges of the pathways near our pitcher plant bogs. A few days ago I walked out on our Visitor Center deck past our bog display garden and saw the little face of a bog violet smiling up at me. I enjoy these times in late winter, before spring is in full swing, when all it takes is a flower here and there to boost your spirits with its small suggestion of warmer days around the corner.

See the program calendar on our website for more information on our upcoming programs, including a children’s Valentine’s Day workshop this Saturday, February 14 at 10:00 a.m., featuring “plantable valentines”, a flytying workshop using household items for youth (ages 9 to 14) who enjoy fishing on February 21 at 1:00 p.m., and a program on Sustainable Home Gardening practices on February 28 at 10:00 a.m. with Harrison County Extension Agent Christian Stephenson, Harrison Co

The Arboretum is open Wednesdays through Sundays 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, call the office at (601) 799-2311 or see our website

FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION: What exactly is a samara? What is the advantage to its shape? Have you ever dropped a samara and watched it spin? See if you can find a time-lapse photo on the Internet that shows the spiral pattern made on its descent.

By Patricia Drackett