January Favorites and Wednesday Vignette

This winter is certainly turning out to be a good test for hardiness and plants that look good in winter despite snow, ice, and multiple days below freezing. My garden is full of young plants showing various levels of damage. Some are outright dead, while many will likely recover and be much hardier by next winter. I won't know for sure until the weather warms in spring, maybe even summer. Still, it's awfully depressing that this horrible winter had to happen the year I chose to do my big garden expansion and fall planting.
Callistemon 'Eleanor' looks decidedly water-soaked in this photo, taken shortly after the thaw. The leaves on both of my plants have since begun to bleach, definitely dead. This came as a bit of a surprise, as 'Eleanor' is supposed to be quite hardy. I wonder if it isn't the true 'Eleanor'. I hope they come back from the roots. 
But it's not all bad. Some plants have surprised me in a good way, and are looking great. One of my favorites this month may even surprise readers. If you've been following this blog long enough, or just know my gardening style, you'll know I'm not big on hardy cacti. I enjoy seeing some of them in other gardens, but I've never had a great desire to have any in mine. So it was with some surprise that an opuntia has been one of my favorite plants this month.

I'm not sure which one this is. It hitched a ride to my garden as a random pad in the pot of Lapageria rosea I brought home almost two years ago. The lapageria has a pampered life, getting moved around to just the right spot throughout the year so it doesn't get too hot or too cold. It spends winter in the greenhouse with the other tender plants that don't need as much warmth as houseplants. But the random opuntia pad? I tossed it into the Stump St. Helens bed, next to the Viburnum davidii. It was spineless, without even glochids, as far as I could see (or feel). Why not? I left it alone, glancing at it whenever I happened to be looking at the other plants in the bed. One day, I notice a new pad forming. It got chewed up by a slug, but the plant just produced another pad. They weren't very big, but I was surprised it seemed to be doing so well in this bed in half shade, slightly raised above the surrounding ground level, but with no special amendments to my clay loam.
Wait, that's not an opuntia. This was the closest I could find to a photo of it from last year, in July. It's just a few inches from the base of the pearly everlasting in this photo. It's a great illustration of how little I thought of it at the time.
It surprised me even more when it survived 19 degrees (F) and record rain last fall and winter. I had thought for sure it was the tender, spineless form of Opuntia ficus-indica (that being the only spineless opuntia I knew of, in my limited knowledge of cacti) and would collapse with any significant frost. Even more surprising was that it didn't rot with all the rain. I hadn't mixed any gravel in to improve drainage where I tossed the pad down. Ok, I thought, maybe this plant is worth keeping after all.

The next summer, it grew larger pads, and they mostly escaped being eaten by slugs. Still not a very big plant, overall, but it was starting to look like something. I still didn't pay a whole lot of attention to it, though. Fast forward to this winter. Multiple snow events where the snow stayed for several days to over a week, multiple days in a row where the temperature never rose above freezing, and an ultimate low between 11 and 12 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought for sure the little opuntia would be mush. On the 18th, after the snow finally melted and the temperature had soared to a balmy 53F, I went out to check on this nameless hitchhiker. Wouldn't you know? It looks perfect! The original pad has shriveled, true, but that's to be expected after a few years. The rest of it looks fine.
This is the plucky little opuntia now. It's the first photo I've ever taken of it, and I think you can see why. It's not much to look at, is it?
While researching potential plants to add to the garden this year, I stumbled upon several other spineless opuntia, the most exciting of which (to me) is the hardy Opuntia cacanapa 'Ellisiana'. It seems there may be several clones of this plant floating around, some with glochids but no spines, and some purportedly sans glochids or spines. Naturally, I want the latter. The glochids are the worst part. I love the architecture of the pads, and it would make a great textural contrast to the generally small-leaved shrubs in the hell garden. Looks like 2017 will be the year I intentionally plant cacti in my garden. I never would have imagined that one of my favorite plants to come out of this awful winter would be an opuntia, though I still don't intend to plant any of the spiny ones. I wonder if I'll ever be able to figure out the name of my hitchhiker. Right now I'm guessing perhaps a selection of Opuntia humifusa, but I'm really just guessing. It's still only a few pads and has yet to show its full size or growth habit, let alone flowers.

While I've been craving green more than anything else, two of my favorite plants this month have very little green to show. The brilliant stems of Cornus sericea 'Midwinter Fire' and spidery blooms of Hamamelis 'Jelena' glow, whether the day is dark and rainy or everything is covered in bleak, white snow.

Back to craving green. This Juncus, which was relocated from where it seeded itself in on a dry mound in almost full sun, has become one of my favorites. It's grown a bit more lush since I relocated it to the edge of the dry creek bed but, though it has spread out a bit after all that snow, it's still mostly upright. I love the spiky green punctuations it provides in this line of mostly Carex comans. Because this plant is so tough and evergreen (and available), I'm going to divided these clumps in spring and spread them further along the dry creek bed and into other beds, if I have enough. I also collected and scattered seed last fall, so hopefully I'll have more volunteers showing up.

Polystichum munitum, the western sword fern, is remarkably upright when grown in sun. It did get a little toasted in summer, but this plant is still getting established and did better than the previous year. The ferns out in the woods, under the trees and thus protected from some of the snow, are also still pretty resiliently upright. I'll be harvesting more from our woods to fill in the shadier parts of the garden.

I've become a fan of Phygelius. I had already fallen for them last summer when they were blooming, but I appreciate them even more now. While the fuchsias have all had their leaves fried off by cold, and their stems have probably died to the ground, the Phygelius are barely damaged. Remember, it got down to 11-12F in my garden one night, and 13F the next, with multiple days below freezing. For some reason I just didn't have much faith that these would be so hardy. Unfortunately, I'm not sure which cultivar this is.

I know I've shown this image, or one like it, a dozen times already, but I'm still not sick of it. (Hopefully no one else is, either.) Podocarpus 'Blue Gem' and the bronze form of Carex comans look good all year. While the carex really is sort of a brown color, it's in warm shades that help to combat the gloom of winter. The rich blue-green of the podocarpus is always a favorite of mine, and the contrasting cool tone enhances the warmth of the sedge.

Those are my favorites for January. Please visit Loree at The Danger Garden to see more plants that are helping to keep their gardener's spirits up through the winter doldrums.

Last Saturday I went for a walk in the woods. I'd been wanting to get out for a long walk for weeks, but the snow and extreme cold kept me indoors. It was wonderful to enjoy the natural scenery. I didn't even mind that it started raining as I headed back. Really, any one of these could be my contribution to Wednesday Vignette, hosted by Anna at Flutter&Hum, but I think I'm favorite the mossy maple trunks in the second photo. It's more important than ever that we take time to recharge, however each of us may do that. For me, it's going out into nature and soaking up all that natural beauty.
I love this old stump sticking up out of a beaver pond, covered in Polypodium glycyrrhiza (licorice fern).

So bright! So mossy! This is why I love living in the Pacific Northwest. Even the deciduous trees are often evergreen.

An impressive swath of Mahonia (or Berberis) nervosa. I'm planning to incorporate a fair amount of this tough, beautiful native evergreen into my garden this year.

I love mosses. We have so many in the PNW, and some of them are very lush, like this Plagiomnium species. (Thank goodness for field guides, so I can impress people with my "knowledge".)

More beautiful moss draping these young Douglas firs. 

Last spring I was obsessed with figuring out the name of this native sedge with broad leaves. With the help of a couple different Facebook groups, I'm sort of almost tentatively certain this is Carex hendersonii. Ok, I suppose I'm a little more sure than that. I'm happy to see that it's evergreen. Plants growing in drier locations are still showing their summer scorch and a bit of winter dieback, but when grown in moist, shady areas like this patch, it's a beautiful native evergreen, pairing well with sword fern and salal.
Thanks, as always, for reading. For my fellow gardeners in the PNW, I hope you've taken advantage of the milder weather to get out and revitalize. Of course, I wish the same for everyone else. I just know we've really needed it here.


  1. Glad you got your nice, long walk, Evan, and your garden report has me dying to go outside in mine. Haven't been out there for a while - my head has been solidly wrapped up in other things. I realize now how much I miss it. You are not wrong about the need to replenish, restore, and recharge. I can actually feel it as a physical craving.

    1. I've been wasting a lot of time, but still wrapped up in my own head. It's good to get outside, and out of your own head.

  2. Ooooh, you think that's Carex hendersonii? I have this in a few places and have been madly trying to figure out what it is. At least mine looks like your photo, not like photos I see online. Your garden is looking good, my friend. Let us hope for no horrible summertime surprises.

    1. That's the conclusion I came to after a lot of discussion on the PNW Plant Geeks and PlantIdents groups on Facebook. I haven't even been able to find many pictures of it online. Parts of my garden are looking ok. You should see the rest of it.

  3. I enjoyed your story of the little Opuntia that could. I too admire the form of those plants in the landscape but I've steered clear of them thus far due to those nasty glochids, which seem to bite even when one is being especially careful. I also enjoyed the photos from your walk in the woods - taking refuge in the woods seems a very good idea at the moment.

    1. I'm surprised you don't have a spineless form of Opuntia ficus-indica or cochenillifera. There appear to be forms of those without spines or glochids, and there should be more that would work in your climate, though I don't know how many are truly glochid-less. My choices are more limited by cold. Only one or two possibilities, but I'm going to find them! :)

  4. Well hot damn! Good for that little Opuntia for changing your mind. Sadly my tallest opuntia (I think it was 6 or maybe even 7 large pads tall) broke apart during the snow and ice melt. I am bummed.

    Love the bright mossy trunks, I saw my own version of them driving up German Town Road yesterday (or is Old GTR?) anyway... Unfortunately the bright green was interspersed with the bright golden color of newly cut (or broken) wood. So many damaged trees...

    1. Oh no. I'm sorry about your opuntia. Can you prop it up and re-root it? Or will you have to start over?

      Yes, there were trees fallen across the logging road I was walking on, too. I didn't notice that many broken branches, just whole trees fallen over.

    2. As you probably noticed in my post today...the lower bits of the opuntia remain rooted and solid, I've picked up the broken parts (the upper pads) and will replant them nearby.

    3. I'm glad it wasn't a total loss. It's a setback, but it will grow new pads. And you'll get more from those broken pads!

  5. It is heart breaking to lose plant during the first winter... I'm sure there is a blessing in there somewhere, if one wants to stay extremely positive at all times :-D. One year I planted Podocarpus 'County Park Fire' and lost it that same winter. Maybe I should try again, just not in the hell strip.

    1. In the case of my Callistemons, and possibly most of my Leptospermum, it's more a matter of bad timing than location. Most of them were planted this summer and fall, and then we had that really mild fall. None of these young plants are as hardy as they would be if they were older. If only I'd had a year or two of mild winters before something like this happened.


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