Sally Mullins

Some folks talk about how dreary and dead the bare trees make the forest appear in winter. Personally, I see a whole new world above the colored carpet on the forest floor.

The open wooded space shows all sorts of things that are hidden in the leaves of summer. Take a look down into the wooded areas along the road and you might be surprised at what you see. I once heard a lady who drove down U.S. 50 into Winchester every day, say that she never saw the redbuds that are so gorgeous along the highway every spring.

The other ladies in the group just looked at each other in amazement and immediately began to tell her what she was missing. The winter forest has lots to show you if you allow your eyes to explore a bit.

Russian sage (Perovskia) is a long blooming perennial in the mint family that will provide gorgeous, slightly aromatic, blue blooms all summer and well into fall. They require full sun, very well drained soil and spring pruning.

Russian sage does well in poor soil and the deer don’t touch him. When first planted, they need regular watering just as all newbie transplants do, but after that they are tolerant of severe drought and maintenance free.

They grow 4 feet tall with a spread of 3 feet and we plant them about 2 feet apart so they make an airy hedge at the end of small gardens.

You can leave the flower heads for winter interest, but since they bloom on new wood, prune them back to 6 or 8 inches in very early spring before new growth begins in earnest.

After they get established, they will send out runners as members of the mint family are prone to do, so if that’s not what you want, dig any new sprouts up when you first notice them. But, please note, the offshoots will not transplant well. We have had them for years and, for us, they are a perfect plant.

Don’t forget your stored bulbs. Warm sunny days can cause them to get soft or even sprout, so keep checking them. On those very same winter days, we put our geraniums and the Euphorbia “Diamond Frost” outdoors for the afternoon.

Because I had only seen it mixed in Calibrachoa and geranium hanging baskets, I thought the Euphorbia was an annual. But it has been blooming nonstop for nearly 2 years, and I have never had an annual do that before, so I looked it up online.

Turns out, it is actually a tender perennial, much like Gerbera daisies, meaning it is a true perennial in its warm southern homeland. Diamond Frost is a hybrid, bred to be infertile, meaning it doesn’t produce viable seed and will continue to flower if kept in a warm sunny place.

It will also return in spring if you cut it back in winter. It’s like a chameleon in that whatever planting medium it’s in, it adjusts to that environment. No wonder you see it in so many hanging baskets.

Some years back, a friend gave us some heavenly bamboo (Nandina) shrubs and knowing them to be very invasive, we planted them up near the road.

Not long after, I read that nandina berries had been linked to toxicity in cedar waxwings and although our plants never grew well enough to produce berries, we cut them back to the ground and haven’t seen them since.

I hadn’t thought much about it until recently when I saw a small note saying researchers in Georgia have found that nandina berries produce a cyanide compound that is toxic not only to cedar waxwings, but to many other birds and also to dogs, cats and horses.

They’ve obviously always been toxic, but for some reason, it’s now becoming a problem.

Their bright red fall foliage used to be quite common in gardens and maybe still is, but I haven’t noticed it. Of course, I may be confusing it with burning bush (Euonymus alatus) shrubs.

The reason for mentioning them now is not to alarm you, but to make you aware of the problem with nandina berries. Possibly you’ve had an animal get sick or even die with no clue as to the cause and these berries may be responsible.

Consumed in large amounts, they can quickly result in death. However, since they are very bitter, most animals will only ingest a small amount out of curiosity, but still enough to become sick.

Some of the signs of cyanide poisoning are respiratory problems, seizures or a coma and if you see any of these, you need to get your pet to a vet ASAP. The entire plant is poisonous, but the berries seem to be the only part that’s interesting to animals, especially birds looking for food in winter.

If you have nandina growing in your yard, I would suggest digging it out and replacing it with some burning bush.

Questions can be left at the Hampshire Review office or emailed to me at Please put “gardening” in the subject box and leave a phone number so I can get back to you if necessary. 

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