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What is this blooming winter flower?

For The Baltimore Sun

Walking outside recently, I found this big shrub had flowers. It’s been blooming since New Year’s! I never realized these maple-syrup colored things were flowers until I got up close. What is this? The flowers are so odd.

This is vernal witch hazel. Witch hazel petals are often described as strappy, a shape that may help them in cold weather when other flowers wouldn’t think of opening. Native to the Midwest, Hamamelis vernalis has flowers varying from yellow to red with a gardenia-like fragrance that’s worth a stroll in a chilly yard.

It grows six to 10 feet high and even wider, very hardy and deer resistant, with good yellow fall color. Leaves may persist in winter, especially when the shrub is young. It likes moist soil and full sun to ¾ shade. It’s more tolerant of high pH than Maryland’s native fall-blooming witch hazel, Hamameliis virginiana.

Patrolling my yard I see the deer have eaten my pawpaw and sweet bay, which supposedly were deer resistant. Large herds of deer roam our neighborhood and devour everything. I’m contemplating putting up bird netting to keep the deer off bushes and small trees. Hoops would hold the netting above the bushes, but is it feasible to place the netting directly on the plants, then stake it down? Or would my plants end up growing through the netting and cause a headache/mess for me?

Resistant is not the same as deer-proof, as we learn to our sorrow. We advise fencing off trees and shrubs — even deer resistant ones — until they are mature enough to be less palatable and grow beyond the size deer rub against.

Deer netting draped over hoops is feasible, though, as you suspect, it would be cumbersome to accommodate growth and/or pruning. Netting draped directly over shrubs is not effective. The deer push against the netting as they feed, causing twigs and leaves to stick out, where they are promptly eaten. Bird netting, instead of deer netting, raises a different issue. Stretched to the ground, it entraps snakes. It's quite a challenge to remove them before they are tortured to death. You need your beneficial snakes to keep down the rodents, which carry Lyme disease. We would not recommend bird netting unless you leave at least a 6-inch space between the netting and soil. Search ‘deer’ on the University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center website for extensive deer help.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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