Field Notes 46

Northern California BY JANET SANCHEZ / Santa Rosa, California, Zone 9

Paperwhites on the Loose

MY MOTHER’S ANNUAL New Year’s Day count usually records some 60 plants in flower in her Northern California garden. Admittedly, a few, such as bright scarlet California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica) and various scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), are represented by only a flower or two. But a few others occur in the hundreds. Perhaps the most spectacular are the expansive drifts of paperwhite narcissus (N. papyraceus) spread out on the sloping hillside below the house. Viewed from indoors, the clusters of nodding white flowers bring a subtle beauty to the many gray and rainy days of winter. When a few hours of welcome sunlight arrive, the blossoms glow more brightly and send their musky perfume far and wide.

Though known to residents of cold-winter climates as easy bulbs to force for winter bloom indoors, in mild-winter regions they are even easier to grow outdoors. Maybe even too easy—my mother’s planting now totals several thousand bulbs. Yet it began some years ago with only a few, part of a collection of mixed narcissi. Usually listed as hardy in USDA Zones 9 to 11, paper-whites are native to the Mediterranean region and thrive in the similar climate of California, where winters are moist, summers dry, and the ground doesn’t freeze. The plants do suffer in unusually cold periods, which damage the flowering stems and the leaves. Eventually the foliage recovers; many blossoms are lost for that year, however.

No matter what the weather, the bulbs seem to increase severalfold each year. For the most part, my mother and her garden helpers let them be, only clearing away the foliage as it dries in early spring. Occasionally clumps of bulbs become so overcrowded they push themselves out of the ground. These are dug and replanted in new areas (or given away), as are bulbs that are in the path of new plantings.

Though it could certainly be argued that paperwhites are sufficiently decorative all by themselves, some favorite winter combinations have evolved; many include plants with soft gray foliage. One group of paper-whites drifts in and around several dozen clumps of blue fescue; another enhances swaths of gray-leaved santolina. The blue flowers of bush germander (Teucrium fruticans) appear in winter and are intensified by a sizable group of paperwhites, as are the darker blue blossoms of a trailing rosemary. A brighter note is contributed by planting paperwhites to grow through the stems of creeping mahonia (M. repens); many of its blue-green leaves turn rosy red in cold weather. Still brighter is the combination of paperwhite blossoms with the red flowers of pineapple sage (Salvia elegans). Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha) makes a vigorous four-foot plant with dark, gray-green leaves that are white underneath. From fall through spring, foot-long stems bear whorls of white flowers with showy purple calyxes beautifully set off by the attendant paperwhites. As the paperwhites continue to multiply—and multiply—plans are afoot to try new combinations. What about a group in front of winter-blooming primrose jasmine (Jasminum mesnyi)? Or surrounding a white-flowered sasanqua camellia? Or set behind the sharp yellow flowers of basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis)?

Worth growing

Correa ‘Ivory Bells’

Correas are drought-tolerant, sun-loving evergreen shrubs, forming, in this selection, a rounded plant about four feet high and wide. The densely borne felted foliage, green on top and grayish beneath, is attractive all year, but the real show comes in fall and winter when the creamy white flowers appear, glowing in the soft light, and delighting resident Anna’s hummingbirds and humans alike. Hardy in USDA Zones 9 to 10, this plant is an excellent choice for shrub borders or large containers; in colder regions it can be grown under glass.

Top do in the garden

  • Protect citrus and other tender plants from sudden frosts. Cover small plants with an upturned cardboard box, the flaps open or closed as needed. To protect larger plants or small trees, make a frame of four wooden stakes around the plant. Staple plastic or burlap to the tops of the stakes; take care that the covering doesn’t touch the leaves, which would cause them to freeze.

  • Apply dormant oil spray on deciduous trees to control aphids, mite eggs, caterpillars, and some kinds of scale.

  • Plant bareroot roses and fruit trees as soon as they become available in nurseries.

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