Tending flowering shrubs and cultivating patience

Posted May 28, 2010, at 5:22 p.m.

Seven years I have waited.

The first few amounted to biding my time and trimming away the encroaching grass. But the past couple of years, as the stems began to lengthen and arch, I took to cajoling.

“Why?” I asked. “Why won’t you bloom? Please.”

A week ago Friday as I left the driveway, I saw the telltale yellow-orange blossoms that caught my eye on a spring visit to Vinalhaven.

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I could only gape in disbelief as I rolled by before shrieking, “The Kerria is in bloom.”

In the summer of 2003, I planted two clumps of Kerria japonica ‘Plenifora,’ courtesy of Margaret Mouradian in Brewer who persuaded me to come dig up some of her Kerria after reading how I had discovered this exquisite plant next to the library on Vinalhaven and planned to buy one. She was looking to get rid of some of hers since the bush was sending up suckers left and right.

I dug up a couple of pieces, which wasn’t exactly easy since suckers can be awfully hard to lift.

The smaller clump I planted died, but the one I put by the fence kept growing slowly.

Oh so slowly.

My reward for such patience was the sight of three — yes, three — double blossoms glistening in the dappled shade by the black cherry tree. The fragile-looking, flower-bedecked stem dipped and swayed in the breeze as I took pictures last weekend.

It reminded me yet again that gardening requires a patient soul, and few things can try it more than shrubs and trees. Perennials hit their stride in a season or two, but the full-blown effect of shrubs and trees can take years.

Shrubs — or bushes, as I prefer to call them — are the middle of the pack, taking longer than most perennials to reach their ideal, but less time than most trees, which can take decades to mature.

I started to take inventory of the bushes I have about the yard and was astounded at the number merrily blossoming each year. There are the wild plums my grandfather planted decades ago, adrift in white blooms that flood the front yard with a delicate perfume for too few days every spring. Nearby is a pair of rhododendron that blossom in purple majesty at the same time, backed by golden forsythia whose fragile flowers only survive in a mild winter such as this past year.

In the middle of the forsythia is a clump of bridal wreath, a white Spirea that blooms each summer. A few feet away in the front yard’s main perennial bed is a massive Hypericum, or St. John’s wort, that sports sunny yellow flowers, a magnet to pollinators.

The white lilac over by the driveway was another offering from my grandfather. I remember running and jumping over the little sprig after it was planted, a sacrilege now for I could have broken it. Today, it towers high over my head, clusters of pure white against a blue sky as yellow and black butterflies drift from stem to stem.

Right now in the backyard, the Enkianthus is alive. Bees industriously visit the towering bush, which must be close to 15 feet tall. The tiny, cream-colored bells veined with red dangle in scores of clusters each spring. I love to stand beneath and listen to the dull roar of the buzzing insects. An added bonus is the fiery color of the leaves in the autumn for one last show.

About the time the peonies open, so will the pink, tubular flowers of Kolkwitzia amabilis, better known as beauty bush. I thought last year I might have lost this one, but a severe pruning of dead wood and a strong root system brought back its delicately arching beauty by summer’s end.

Directly behind it is Weigela florida, another summer bloomer with red, tubular flowers and a favorite of the resident hummingbirds that hover in the 6-foot-tall branches. Standing next to it is another Syringa, this one a purple lilac called “Pocahontas.”

Across the way is a Clethra, or summersweet, with its spikes of spicy blossoms, and an American hazelnut that is starting to spread and someday may actually have nuts. Nearby are two holly plants, a mountain laurel, a magenta-flowering Spirea dubbed “Neon Lights,” and more lilacs.

Set along the tree line behind all the old bushes is a new addition to the collection. I was visiting Surry Gardens a couple of weeks ago and happened across what looked like a mound of maple leaves.

I stopped to read the tag and found what surely must be my Holy Grail of shrubs, if only I had known the name of this elusive bush.

Needless to say, I purchased a pot of Rubus odoratus that afternoon, gleefully envisioning the wall of loveliness it will become if I can keep it alive that long.

“It” is flowering raspberry. I have seen this plant a few miles from my house and always wondered what it was, never quite daring to stop to ask. Once, on a trip to New Brunswick, I saw a white version at a botanical garden but couldn’t find a tag or a guide to identify it (turns out the white variety is a near relative called thimbleberry, R. parviflorus).

But now I have my own, a native Maine shrub with maplelike leaves and fragrant purple and pink flowers that come in clusters from five to 75 in July and August. Songbirds are said to love the resulting berries, and in the fall, the leaves are supposed to turn pale yellow.

It is only about 10 inches wide and 18 inches tall, but it should get to be 8 feet tall and wide, spreading by suckers much like the Kerria has.


I feel another round of patience cultivation coming on.

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