Floridata Article

Homesick for a Real Mid-Atlantic Spring

Azaleas & dogwoods @ Natl. Arboretum. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Azaleas & Dogwoods at the National Arboretum in Washington, DC.

We took a trip back to our old neighborhood near Annapolis at the end of April. The peak of spring in the Mid-Atlantic is something to behold. While northern Florida has dogwoods (Cornus florida) and azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), they don't have the same impact. I guess Mother Nature rewards those who must suffer through a real winter with a more magnificent show in spring.

The most widely planted Azaleas both here in northern Florida and in Maryland are the evergreen cultivars and hybrids originally imported from Japan. Two of our native species, pinxter azalea (Rhododendron canescens) and Swamp Azalea (R. viscosum) have more delicate flowers. The Wild Azalea is deciduous, but Swamp Azalea is evergreen. I must admit, although I've seen them elsewhere, I haven't encountered the wild ones in my wanderings around northern Florida so far, and I'm always looking.

The cultivated azaleas started blooming in the fall here, when the seesaw temperatures and the shortened nights broke the flower buds' dormancy. Scattered blooming continued throughout the winter and then in early March the rest of the buds opened. In Maryland, only rarely will the combination of the correct day length and warm weather cause Azaleas to break their flower bud dormancy. During the cold winter there is never any blooming, so when end of April arrives, the show is magnificent.

Azaleas and dogwoods at the 
              National Arboretum in Washington DC. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Spring at the National Arboretum is something to behold.

There is almost two months difference in the peak blooming times between here and Maryland. It is said that the hummingbirds follow the azaleas' blooms northward in the spring. Hummingbird feeders in Maryland start magically appearing at the height of the azaleas' show.

When the dogwoods bloom here in northern Florida, most of the other trees are fully leafed out, while in the Mid-Atlantic, they bloom before the leaves have come out and there are many more dogwoods along the edges of forested areas along the roads. It makes a big difference.

While my husband and I were in the area, we visited The National Arboretum in Washington, DC; it's one of our favorite places. A must-see at several times during the year, but the Arboretum's mature and naturalized areas of azaleas and dogwoods provide the best show at the end of April.

Cut Tulips were my favorite spring bouquet!

Tulips in Williamsburg, VA. Photo by Ginny Stibolt
Tulips in Williamsburg, VA.

We saw some fabulous Tulip (Tulipa spp.) plantings in Williamsburg, VA with pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) planted as a ground cover beneath the tulips. The pansies bloom throughout the winter: they tolerate freezing and being covered with snow. I used to plant pansies and tulips at the same time in Maryland and I'm sure these well cared-for gardens use the same technique. When the tulips were done, I'd dig up both the tulips and the pansies, and put in the summer flowers. Pansies don't do well in the heat and the tulips never do as well in subsequent years.

 

I wanted tuips like these! Photo by Ginny Stibolt
I wanted tulips like these! Is that too much to ask?

I planted 64 white and yellow tulip bulbs last fall in several places in my gardens so I could see where they'd do best. I didn't plant the pansies because of their problems with heat. Instead of a nice mass of flowers like these Virginia gardens, there was only one (!) pitiful bloom and several curled leaves. I thought they might have been eaten, but apparently there just wasn't long enough streak of cold weather. I've found dead or still dormant bulbs playing possum in the ground as I've worked on my spring and summer projects. I had to do without my favorite cut flowers.

Okay, here's what I want to know. If the tulips don't grow well here, why do all the major outlets sell them? Why do the instructions on the tulips' packaging show when to plant them in Florida? Do people plant them and then never complain? Do the workers get any training from local experts? Or did I just get a bad bunch? Come to think of it, I don't recall seeing any tulip beds in bloom this spring in Florida.

One of my neighbors said that you need to give the tulip bulbs a cold treatment before planting them. Maybe that would help, but I probably won't bother next fall. I'll have to find a new favorite spring flower more compatible with northern Florida's moderate climate. I'm looking for suggestions. (Update: Read my article on how I learned to love southern bulbs, The calla lilies are blooming again.)

While I was homesick for spring, I did not miss Old Man Winter's cold weather. Now if we could just avoid having so many hurricanes this season, I'd be a mostly happy gardener transplanted here in northern Florida.


Ginny Stibolt moved to northeastern Florida in 2004 and even though she's a botanist and lifelong gardener, Florida gardening was a shock. She started writing The Adventures of a Transplanted Gardener columns for the Times Union newspaper in Jacksonville. This is one of those columns archived here on Floridata.com for your enjoyment. Now she's written three Florida garden books published by University Press of Florida: Sustainable Gardening for Florida, 2009; Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida with Melissa Contreras, 2013, and The Art of Maintaining a Florida Native Landscape, 2015. Check out her blog for the latest news and articles: www.GreenGardeningMatters.com

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