Brown Is The New Green



John Willis and I have been discussing camellias this month (

Or rather, he has been emailing me pictures of his mature specimens, blooming happily, and I have been weeping over my new acquisitions.

John and his wife Beth are excellent gardeners, and though I am very happy to have them close by, it would be much better for my ego if they lived about 200 miles south and their ridiculous record of excellence could simply be put down to ‘Zone 8.’

camellia japonica

One of John’s camellias, blooming in March. And this is its ‘bad side.’ (photo: John Willis,

Recognizing my sensitivity on the subject – perhaps due to the adjectives I used to describe the vagaries of winter this year – he was kind enough to admit through otherwise transparent boasting, that while “the shady side is very glossy and green …the sunny side shows the bronzing that you are probably seeing as well.”

Bronzing?  Ha! I can only dream of such things.  Around here the color of anguish is brown.

Taking Stock: The Losers

What did you lose this winter?  Let me know in the comments below

It was a hard winter for my broad-leafed evergreens, and perhaps yours too.  A period of very early, very prolonged, very low, lows in December coupled with little in the way of precipitation throughout the winter did a number on those once glossy leaves.  Examining plants now, I am very aware of how long it will take many of them to recover – some perhaps not at all.

At the top of that list is Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’ – a  fabulously ferny cultivar that has pulled through the last two (albeit mild) winters with flags flying, only to be knocked out by a December sucker punch.

mahonia soft caress, great plants

‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia eurybracteata in happier days this summer.

I will grow it again – it is just too wonderful not to.  I cannot give it more shelter than I gave its predecessor – but a bit of burlap might remediate the early morning sun that appeared after we lost a large tree on its southern side.

A sister shrub – M. eurybracteata ‘Marvel’ has done better (as it should with a Zone 6 designation).  There is a bit of browning, but there is also the beginning of blooming – and that is as good a sign as any.

The chindo viburnum (V. awabuki ‘Chindo’ ) was partially defoliated – but as this seems to be a constant winter reaction to my cool stream valley with its whistling winds, I expect little sympathy.  Ditto Fatsia japonica, though each year it is a little taller as it stands, naked and shriveled outside the guest bedroom. I do try and warn the guests.

The Daphne odora has survived, two blooms to its name – but then, it is only 12 inches tall and two blooms is one better than last year. (This is where my husband chimes in to tell me I am officially middle-aged and young women do not even think statements such as that last one, less say them out loud. He is right, but I shall continue.)

Even the coniferous evergreens had to gird their loins in December – shriveled or otherwise.  I have browning on various species of chamaecyparis, juniper and thuja and, once again, the little sequoia cultivar ‘Atlanta’ poked its head up during the summer and found that when winter came, it wasn’t nestled in a warm California grove, or indeed, a Georgia suburb.  “Root hardy” tends to lose its appeal when one is discussing trees that should tower.

Taking Stock: The Winners

Some shrubs did well, such as Mahonia aquifolium – though not much surprise there, and I find myself vaguely and irrationally irritated.

Common-as-muck rhodos were fine, as well as that tried-and-true native – Viburnum rhidiophyllum (Allegheny viburnum).

My landscape star this year was certainly Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ – which did not suffer so much as a scratch.  Look on my glossy variegated leaves, ye Mighty, and despair!

Yes, I know it’s a stretch, but it makes me grin.

And about those camellias Marianne….

Right. As much as I’d love to run out of copy space to avoid writing about them, there is still the matter of those camellias.  Therefore, let me be brief – much like their lives upon this earth.

Let’s focus on the positive first: I knew to plant them in the spring, even if I bought them in the fall (recommended in northern, not southern climates).  I knew to give them shelter from wind.  I knew to keep them watered, particularly through winter warm ups, and I knew that north walls were preferable.  I gave them one.

Apparently, what I did not know was never to buy sorry looking fall clearance camellias without a greenhouse – even if they are 75% off, five-gallon specimens that normally retail above my comfort level.  And I missed the note about never giving them fertilizer in the fall – no matter how sorry they look.  Dormancy is key.

What can I say? I’m a mother first, gardener second.  I see wounds, I instinctively administer medicine.  Had I simply read the late Dr. Ackerman’s book Beyond the Camellia Belt: Breeding, Propagating, and Growing Cold-Hardy Camellias (2007) before, rather than after the buying frenzy, I might have kept my wallet in my pocket and had one less tragic camellia story to share.

The good news – according to Dr. Ackerman who hailed from The National Arboretum and spent much of his life breeding cold hardy cams – my plants are mostly dead only, and therefore slightly alive.  A good cut back and in three years we might be able to go through the whole shebang again.  John should be thrilled. In that time period he’ll be able to share a further twenty-six award-winning photos of his camellias with me.


By | 2018-05-04T02:26:49+00:00 May 4th, 2018|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.


  1. tonytomeo May 7, 2018 at 1:43 am - Reply

    Are mahonias really making a comeback? I noticed that the common Oregon grape is more popular than it had been, and that a few of the more unusual specie and cultivars (that you are probably familiar with) are becoming available here.
    I am pleased to say that I lost nothing this winter; but that is because our winters are pretty boringly mild.

    • Marianne Willburn May 7, 2018 at 10:52 am - Reply

      Certainly, M. eurybracteata cultivars are extremely popular here, but I don’t think they’re replacing M. aquifolium – which remains very hardy in tough winters. ‘Soft Caress’ is a wonderful foliage accent and should be super-plus hardy for you. Turns out mine is root hardy and coming back from base, but not sure I won’t replace it as it will take some time to come back.

      • tonytomeo May 7, 2018 at 5:10 pm - Reply

        You know, what I dislike about the mahonias is that they are too hardy. I mean that because they do not die back in the winter, they retain their old canes until they just die of old age. I must explain to the gardeners that the tired old canes should be cut to the ground to promote prettier new growth. No one gets it. The only one that really looks good on old canes is Mahonia lomariifolia, and even that one should get the oldest canes cut down as they deteriorate. Otherwise, mahonia really should be more popular here than it is. Although not locally native, it is very resilient and happy in our climate.

        • Marianne Willburn May 10, 2018 at 8:12 pm - Reply

          Yes, I completely agree Tony. They get ratty.

          • tonytomeo May 11, 2018 at 2:32 am

            If pruned properly, they are constantly rejuvenated.

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