You have to hand it to those Olympic athletes; they sure do make it look easy. Watching the 2018 Olympics with my family has inspired us to take to the slopes, that is, our small sledding hill. We took advantage of a snowy weekend and got in some much overdue sled riding. In the joyful moments of barreling headfirst down a steep hill with a six and four-year-old on my back, one doesn't think of the physical nature of playing in the snow. It turns out, I am not an Olympic athlete, at least that much is certain as I draft this article grateful for a soft chair, pain reliever, and a heating pad.
For most of the plant world, winter in the Midwest means the slumber of dormancy, bare branches, and the brown tufts of tall grasses and seed heads. As with many qualities of nature, there are exceptions to the rule of winter dormancy. Very soon, the handful of winter-blooming plants will begin their display. In fact, for those in Southern Illinois, the show may have already started! Following are a few winter-blooming plants to look for during the mid- to late winter months.
Ozark witch hazel – During my time at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, I will never forget the first time our tree identification class came across a witch hazel. It was the fall blooming common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). The witch hazel stood in the dimly lit understory of a park-like canopy of trees. I returned several weeks later in late autumn to observe the yellow ribbon-like blooms while the shade trees shed their leaves for the winter all around. It came to my attention there were several species of witch hazel, even some that bloomed in the middle of winter. Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is one species of note that blooms fragrant, yellow to blood red flowers from January to April (depending on the cultivar and your location). Considered more of a large shrub, Ozark witch hazel will send up suckers to form colonies making it appropriate as a large hedge, screen, or along woodland borders. Ozark witch hazel can be a landscape focal point by pruning any suckers.
Snowdrops – This plant lives up to its name. Dainty white flowers emerge in February often poking through snow cover, reaching almost six-inches in height. Native to Central Asia near Georgia's northern border to Russia, snowdrops (Galanthus alpinus) is a small bulb that will naturalize in a woodland understory or a lawn under large deciduous trees. Place snowdrops along pathways or within view of a window to observe the delicate nature of this plant. Once the weather begins to transition to summer, snowdrops foliage will yellow, fade out and go dormant.
Bloodroot – A recent favorite, I first noted bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) at the Carl Sandburg Birthplace in Galesburg, Illinois. In early March, Knox County Master Gardeners led me out to a lush groundcover dotted with solitary white flowers. They encouraged me to pick a leaf, and to my surprise, the profuse sap from the cut leaf dripped bright red. Bloodroot is an intriguing North American native, growing only ten-inches tall in the full shade of a woodland. The flowers are short-lived, but the foliage will continue to remain attractive into the late summer when the plant goes dormant.
Hellebores – Often marketed as Christmas or Lenten Rose, hellebores bloom starting February through March in Illinois. Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) blooms sooner than Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis), but both display large three to four-inch wide nodding flowers. A welcome sight in the middle of winter. Hellebores grow 18-inches tall in part to full shade. The evergreen foliage may turn brown during frigid weather without any snow cover. Prune off the damaged foliage and new growth will fill in later in the spring. Hellebore are very poisonous.If I could give out Olympic medals, each of these plants would get gold for giving us a little bit of life during the doldrums of winter. As for myself, I may have to steal away one more winter adventure before the snow melts. However, this time I will remember to stretch a bit before resuming my role as a human sled for my children.