Thoughts on February Plants: A Spring Tease

There’s a story behind this long line of daphnes. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

I enjoy the month of February here in North Carolina because the sky is blue, the sun is higher in the sky, the temperatures tease us with sudden warmth, and old friends in the garden are intent upon returning. Spring is in the offing, but we cannot say goodbye to winter yet.

The photo at the top of this article absolutely sends me into a good old-fashioned tizzy, mingled with a large touch of gardener’s envy. A neighbor used to propagate Daphne odora in a row along the road. Every once in a while, he had a failure but, on the whole, he was remarkably successful as this long line of daphnes attests. Here, you can see the fruits of his labor in full bloom—and there are seemingly thousands of tiny, fragrant flowers.

A closer look at the blooming daphnes. Photo by Kit Flynn.

Now daphnes are hard to sustain in the garden as they ostensibly have a death wish. Even the curators at Duke Gardens admit that they have limited success in growing them—and that says a lot. This is a plant that demands well-draining soil and sun. My neighbor sited his on a sunny ridge that apparently meets with his daphnes’ approval. Try this if you have an accommodating ridge sited in the sun as you might end up being the envy of the neighborhood.

A lovely spirea suddenly came into bloom, one that I had totally overlooked–and this is a common story with spirea. Spireas are small-leafed shrubs of little interest until they bloom in the late winter or early spring. Then they appear as lacy, rather delicate plants that accent the garden and come at the right time.

The one pictured below is Spiraea thunbergia “Ogon,” better known perhaps as “Mellow Yellow.” It’s drought resistant, requires little or no fertilizer, and is easy to grow, provided you site it in a sunny spot. In the fall, it will turn into a vivid orange. What more can you ask of a shrub? (In the photo, it shares the spotlight with another favorite of mine.)

A “Mellow Yellow” spirea peeks out from behind a no-name Camellia japonica and its blooms. Photo by Kit Flynn.

The great thing about being a gardener of your own patch is that you can be as opinionated as you want. Do you like Helleborus x hybridus? Then by all means plant it. However, in my garden it has worn out its welcome. I will grow Helleborus foetidus and would nurture H. niger if it didn’t consistently reject my offers of hospitality.

While many gardeners prattle on about H. x hybridus (and I have to admit grudgingly that its flowers are charming), to my prejudiced mind they verge on the invasive. I resent having to cut off the flowers, flaunting their pregnancy, in mid-March, well before they are spent.

This is the month when I savor the Camellias japonica. February offers us milder temperatures than does January—we get fewer of those deep freezes that turn the blooms to brown. With their broader leaves, these glossy green evergreens offer so much to the structure of the garden—and their flowers are an added bonus.

One that has captured my heart is “Berenice Boddy,” the mother of so many of our cultivars. A large camellia, her blooms are not as spectacular or as intricate as “Jacks” and “Lavender Prince” that dominate the March landscape. However, she is a reliable workhorse in the garden and one that is important to camellia hybridization.

February is a month when I concentrate on leaf form. The Aspidistras that have faced the winter so bravely are now understandably showing signs of wear and tear. As soon as I spy new growth, I will cut away the old leaves.

Being a lady of a certain age, I merely shake my head at some of the leaves reappearing in the garden. Am I, I wonder, the only gardener who has forgotten what she planted? Is this a coreopsis appearing—or is it a phlox? This is another reminder that I must label it as soon as I can determine its lineage.

I’m beginning to think that Lavandula x intermedia “Phenomenal” is the miracle plant I constantly want to gather in my arms in thanks. I spent years trying to grow Tuscan and Dutch lavender as English lavender was clearly out of bounds due to our trying climatic conditions. Those lavenders were okay but clearly lacked the aroma and charm of the English lavenders.

Then along came “Phenomenal,” a French lavender that fits the bill.

What makes “Phenomenal” so phenomenal (I couldn’t resist) is that it sails through our coldest days of winter and our hottest days of summer with aplomb. Plant it in sun in well-draining soil and watch it shine. In March, sheer off one-third of the plant, observing it as it regenerates.  To my mind a long row of this lavender is numbing to the eye; I much prefer using it as an accent plant. As with most herbs, go very easy on the fertilizer.

When I first put pen to paper with this article, I thought to myself that I had little to say. Expounding on three inches of daylily leaves or an inch of new rose growth is exciting to the seasoned gardener, but they offer little of interest to the February column. It takes some diligence to seek out what gives you pleasure in the February garden. This is the time you have to use both the camera and your eyes. I assure you that soon you’ll have a list of favorite February plants. And in the end, that’s what gardening is all about.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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1 Comment on "Thoughts on February Plants: A Spring Tease"

  1. Why don’t you write columns about native plants more often. Don’t you know that our native pollinators need native plants in order to thrive? The larvae of our native pollinators cannot eat the leaves of these exotic plants that you recommend for our gardens. Please stress planting native plants!

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