Louisiana landscapes are neither totally bleak nor lifeless during winter
By Dan Gill
Overall, Louisiana landscapes sleep restlessly over the winter. We certainly don’t see the sound slumber that is typical for gardens in climates that are considerably colder than ours. In cold climates, landscape plants hunker down and hope for a blanket of snow to tuck them in for the winter. Our gardens toss and turn, wake up and want a drink of water and otherwise spend a fitful winter season.
Some of our plants do snooze rather soundly. Many herbaceous perennials disappear for the winter. Deciduous trees and shrubs strip down (drop all their leaves) and then settle in for a nice sleep. A few, like pecan trees (Carya illinoensis), prefer to take a long rest and don’t stir until April.
For some, it’s really just a nap. Our native Drummond red maples (Acer rubrum var. drummondii) don’t drop their leaves until early December, and by late January in South Louisiana are already beginning to bloom.
Some of our trees and perennials and the vast majority of our shrubs are evergreen and prefer to sleep with their clothes on. We are able to grow so many of these broadleaved evergreens because of our relatively mild winters. In colder climates, there are very few broadleaved evergreens and most of the evergreen plants are needled conifers.
If the only difference between winter landscapes here and up North was our extensive use of broadleaved evergreens, then I really couldn’t make my point as well. But much more than that is going on in our landscapes.
For one thing, some of the broadleaved evergreens aren’t content just to stay dressed – they deck themselves out. Consider camellias (C. japonica). All winter long these amazing shrubs produce flowers. And not just any flowers – large, flamboyant, “in your face winter” flowers – that brighten our landscapes from December through March.
Other winter bloomers may not be so flashy, but sweet olives (Osmanthus fragrans) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) delight us with their enchanting fragrances on mild winter days. These plants are not actually growing, but are simply opening flower buds set back during summer when they were awake and growing.
There are, however, plants that actually do most of their growing during the winter. Our native Louisiana irises (Iris fulva, I. hexagona, I. brevicaulis, I. giganticaerulea, and I. nelsonii) grow from October through April. Other winter-growing herbaceous perennials include calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica), Easter lilies (Lilium longiflorum), and acanthus (Acanthus mollis). Most of the spring-flowering bulbs grow through the winter in Louisiana (and some even bloom).
And speaking of plants actively growing during winter, we continue to plant and grow a wide variety of cool-season vegetables and herbs throughout the winter season. Some of the most delicious and nutritious vegetables can only be grown in Louisiana during the cool season, such as broccoli, cabbage, carrots, turnips, mustard greens, lettuce, and green onions. And we are able to plant and harvest many herbs during that time as well, such as parsley, cilantro, thyme, oregano, and chives.
What that makes our winter landscapes come alive the most is our use of cool-season bedding plants, such as Viola, Dianthus, sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), and many others. These indispensable plants provide abundant and vibrant color for the winter flower garden. Although the best display is seen in the spring (late February, March, and April), enough flowers are produced during normal mild winters to dress up the landscape beautifully. Like cool-season vegetables, these delightful plants only thrive here during the cooler months.
Taking all of this into consideration, it becomes easier to see why there is no clear-cut demarcation in our landscapes between winter and spring. Spring is not distinctively different from winter. While some plants are just waking up with a stretch and a yawn, others, such as spring-blooming bulbs, are reaching their peak and getting ready for a summer siesta. We do not transition from bleak lifeless landscapes into a sudden explosion of growth and color.
As I’ve tried to show, our landscapes are neither totally bleak nor lifeless during winter. Some plants retain foliage, grow, and bloom all through the winter. In spring, as our groggy gardens awaken, we simply see more plants producing foliage, growing, and blooming. Rather than being totally different, it is more a matter of degree.
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