A bevy of winter blooms are emerging at Crosby Arboretum

Published 9:53 am Sunday, February 13, 2022

By Patricia Drackett

Director of the Crosby Arboretum and

assistant extension professor of landscape architecture with the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

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You might have been thinking we are in the deep throws of winter, but recent balmy days may have changed your mind! I’m here to report that we have been finding new blooms!  From Elliot’s blueberry to southern crabapple, buckwheat tree, Carolina yellow jessamine, and wooly sunbonnets, there is something of interest to capture your interest around every corner.

I remember a test long ago that asked us to list five plants that bloom in winter. Could you answer this question?  The test, for all of Mississippi, would have been easier for those living in the coastal South.  Here, we don’t’ have to endure weeks or months, of grim winter days when no flower in its right mind would dare poke its head out to take a look around.

Red maple is a native tree species that will soon begin its late winter show of red flowers. Many of us may equate these colorful trees with their scarlet wing-shaped fruit, called samaras, when they begin to fall to the ground, but many do not realize that these seed structures are following a crop of red flowers. If you notice a tree all decked out in red, take a closer look to see if this is due to flowers, or samaras.

Red maple is a dependable, fast-growing tree and is attractive in all seasons. It prospers on a wide variety of sites, in sun or part shade, wet or dry areas, and typically grows between 40 to 50 feet tall. The tree makes a great choice for gardeners who say they can’t grow anything!

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. Believe it or not, you can harvest sap from red maples to make maple, although you would have to use a lot more red maple than sugar maple sap to produce a gallon of syrup.

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.

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.

If you haven’t already renewed your membership or wish to join, you may do so on our website (www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu<http://www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu>). Remember our memberships also include a membership in the American Horticultural Society’s Reciprocal Admissions Program, allowing free or reduced entry to nearly 350 other U.S. public gardens.

A winter botany field walk will be held Saturday, February 26, from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. with director Pat Drackett. Explore native plants in the Crosby Arboretum exhibits and learn about uses of native species in the garden and home landscape, including those that are edible or have wildlife value. Walk is $3 for Arboretum members; non-members $5. Call 601-799-2311 to sign up. The Arboretum is a Mississippi State University facility and requires that in the face of the major Covid-19 “Omicron” variant outbreak, masks are to be worn inside all Arboretum buildings, but not for outdoor program.

Mark your calendar for our big spring native plant sale on Friday and Saturday, March 25 and 26, and see our Facebook page for more information on programs and activities. The Arboretum is located at 370 Ridge Road in Picayune, at I-59 Exit 4. Leashed pets are always welcome!