April showers bring May flowers

This rhododendron would make a huge statement in any woodland garden.

That’s one of the first little rhymes children learned back in the day to help them remember why we shouldn’t complain when it rains. Those rain drops, filled with nitrogen, fuel the bulbs that are just peeping out from the cold winter ground around the first part of April. 

Later in the month, the shrubs and perennials appear to give us that age–old promise of rebirth and renewal. It never ceases to amaze people when spring’s beauty is revealed again and again at this time of the year. 

The cold, gray shroud of winter is suddenly replaced with rainbow colors near enough to smell and plentiful enough to pick and take into the house or to put in a fruit jar and display on your desk at work. 

The first to show their colors are the dogwoods, azaleas, quince and forsythia.  Some of these plants even come with their very own story, like the legend of the dogwood tree.  It goes like this:  In Jesus’ time, dogwood trees grew in Jerusalem. Then, dogwoods were tall, large, and similar to oak trees in strength. Because of its strength, the tree was chopped down and made into the cross Jesus was crucified on. It symbolizes both a curse and a blessing, designated as being the instrument of torture, and the beloved symbol of Christianity. Since then, its growth is stunted so that never again can it be used as a device of something so horrible. 

Dogwood blossoms are said to be shaped in the form of a cross. The rust-brown and red colors at the outer edge of each petal represents the nails that were driven through Christ’s hands, while the center of the flower is said to represent the crown of thorns worn by Christ at the time of his crucifixion.

The dogwood blooms each year around Easter, the blossoms come first, before the leaves, and before the other trees leaf out. Could this be so that we will see those blossoms and understand their significance?

The dogwood isn’t the only bloom with religious legend attached to it. The Passion Vine, recorded by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries who came to this country in the 16th century, is often found in the wild along fence rows or twining around hedges. Its bloom is one of the loveliest imaginable.  

The ten petals are said to represent Jesus’ Faithful Apostles. The five “anthers” are symbolic of the five wounds Jesus suffered, while  the circle of filaments in the center of the flower represent the Crown of Thorns, and the three purple stigma represent the three nails holding Jesus to the cross.

If you find one of them growing along an old fence, you might try watching for the flower to give birth to a large seed pod, roughly the color of a lime. Gather these pods and harvest the seeds. Using a great potting soil is essential. Cover the seeds with a glass cloche, or by fashioning a plastic ‘greenhouse’ over the tray. Plant seeds indoors in full sun with moist soil. Every few weeks, give your plant a breath of fresh air by removing the cloche or plastic tent. After the first frost, plant your seedlings in full sun. You will need to provide them something on which to climb, like an arbor or a fence. 

Passion flowers grow well in the Southeast. However, it is a woody and aggressive vine that can very well climb up a 10x8 foot support. So make sure to plan accordingly. You can always trim it back after it blooms because when the blooms are gone there is nothing left but another green vine, although its leaf is interesting.

Spring plants come in such a wide array of colors that there is something for every garden and for every gardener. If you love white, try spirea, the one called Bridal Veil is a good one, with long gracefully arching twig-sized branches filled top to bottom with small white flowers. 

Snowball bushes are another spring arrival that often gives us bumper crops of large showy flowers that are wonderful for the cutting garden. And by the way, snowball bushes are viburniums, not hydrangeas. This easy-to-grow shrub can reach towering heights if left on its own, but is easily pruned after flowering. 

Of course, azaleas, which come in so many colors that it is hard to keep up with them, is the star of Southern gardens each spring. These hardy shrubs come in white, red, orange-red, orange, purple, hot pink, baby pink, fuchsia, apricot and many other colors, with new varieties appearing on the market each year.   

Snowball bushes provide lovely cut flowers Azaleas can be a bit finicky about their soil requirements, liking to be somewhat acidic, so make sure to have your soil tested before planting them. They also love to be planted a little higher than normal to prevent them from becoming too soggy. Prune only after flowers have disappeared. 

Lawrence County is a wonderful spot to drive around and see these spring bloomers. By riding up the mountain road you can see dogwoods in their native environment. Riding city streets gives you a better view of the rest, which are at their peak, just in time for the April Walking Tours, which began on the first Saturday of April. This week you are on your own, take all of the self-guided tours you want, but mark your calendar for the last Saturday of the month, when the lovely village of Courtland will be strolling through the historic sections of the area, often with their original landscaping. Be sure to take this tour, folks, for its beauty and its rich history.  The tour meets at the Courtland Museum, promptly at 10:00 a.m. 

After touring downtown Courtland, plan a visit to Pond Spring, the historic home of Gen. Joe Wheeler, just  a couple of miles down Highway 20  from Courtland. Look for the historic marker on your right. There is a small admission to tour the house, but you can stroll the lovely grounds to your heart’s content. This is not a part of the Free Walking Tours.

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