Edgeworthia chrysantha

Red hellebore. —Photo by Susan Safford

This is a misleading time of year on the Vineyard. Bird song is once again enlivening Island woods and thickets. Sunrise now occurs at 6:18 am. Backdropped by deep blue skies, trees’ buds are clearly swelling. The lovely tiny cyclamen C. coum ‘Lake Effect’ sports minute white flowers. However, it is not spring.

At the arboretum

The goal of a recent quick visit to Polly Hill Arboretum was to check out the bud development on the two Edgeworthia chrysantha, plants of great winter interest due to their curious flower buds. The popcorn-like buds gradually enlarge until the multi-floret creamy yellow bloom opens, releasing fragrance that is a late winter gift.

My own edgeworthia was propagated and given by a friend, and, with all of its six flower buds, is not of sufficient stature yet to pose for its photograph. Those at the arboretum, on the other hand, are large and heavily budded. In the right lighting, the contrast of multiple dark brown stems and chalky white flower bud “bobbles” is a delightful and startling image. Perhaps a localized miniature snow flurry?

Although these edgeworthias were until recently quite uncommon, in the past 20 years or so they have begun to appear more frequently in American gardens. In leaf the plant has smooth blue-green foliage that is vaguely tropical in appearance, which obscures the strong angular lines of the forking growth habit. Edgeworthia’s common name, paper bush, stems from its traditional Japanese use in making a durable paper for banknotes, among other uses.

Edgeworthia chrysantha flower buds form later in summer. A heavier crop may be induced by pruning the growing tips back by three or four inches after flowering. If contemplating adding this rarity to the garden, plant it near a doorway or other location where its scent will be appreciated.

PHA’s curator, Tom Clark, had this to say about PHA’s edgeworthia: “A bit early for edgeworthia, even with mild weather. We can expect flowers in mid-late March in a typical year, but we’ll see what two mornings of -5°F did to them. [Hardiness is zone 7-9; choose site with care.] We’ll have some for sale this year, and will likely have the red-flowered ‘Akebono’ later this year or in 2017.”


Moreover, the nearby hellebore and snowdrop planting attracts attention, blooming splendidly adjacent to the edgeworthias. There are several more attractive stands near the PHA Visitor Center and Hilly’s Garden.

Hellebore season is well underway; take a moment to examine these late winter–early spring bloomers, whose presence is so appreciated by people and early pollinators alike.

In their “Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide” (Timber Press, 2006), C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler prescribe them for too much January and February: “Hellebores are the perfect antidote to winter. They begin to bloom when few other plants are stirring, and continue to add color through spring.”

They continue: “Flowers are not the only charms of hellebores. Their richly textured leaves add structure to the summer and winter garden…. As the flower buds begin to stir in the center of the rosettes, it’s best to remove all the foliage to make way for the flowers.” In addition to the species hellebores found in the wild described within “Hellebores,” there are now numerous interspecific and intersectional hybrids, which may be leading to unforeseen problems.

Garden writer and designer Noel Kingsbury’s recent blog post, “Hellebore Troubles,” at Noel’s Garden Blog alerts readers to a possible problem. Kingsbury observes that his carefully chosen strains seem to be dying out after about 10 years, hardly what he had in mind when he went to such expense to acquire the very best in hellebore breeding.

“Given my interest in long-term plant performance, I have been monitoring this and discussing it with other gardeners. The consensus is that from about 10 years onwards many do go into a decline. This is not surprising as they seed (or can do) so extensively, which suggests something which is not going to be with us forever.”

‘Pollinator Friendly Gardening’

I suspect there may be a trace of “pollinator fatigue” in the national attention span. Therefore this useful, well-written, comprehensive book, “Pollinator Friendly Gardening,” by Rhonda Fleming Hayes (Voyageur Press, 2015) comes along at an apt moment. Multiple studies are published, all saying essentially the same thing, describing the disturbing situation concerning the decline of insect populations that we depend upon for — wake up, people! — our food supply, among other “details.”

Just the latest, from the journal “Nature” (bit.ly/pollinatorsthreat):

“An international science body tasked with tracking the ecological health of the planet has announced the findings of its first report. The review warns that the ongoing decline in the number of pollinating insects and animals threatens global crop production …

“The report offers a sober assessment of the decline in populations of pollinating insects and animals, affected by factors including climate change, disease, and pesticide use. The global production of crops that depend on pollinators is an industry worth up to U.S. $577 billion annually….”

The message of “Pollinator Friendly Gardening” is: Join the movement, your garden can make a difference. It then supplies relevant information in the form of interesting copy, fun facts, tables, and lists of resources. Look for a copy at the West Tisbury Free Public Library.

To do right now

As part of prepping for the coming season, we can cut back some plant material that was allowed to stand over the winter, such as epimedium, English and Baltic ivy, liriope, carex, and hellebore, before fresh new growth, or underplanted perennials and bulbs, begin to emerge.