Blooms begin to emerge before the snow melts away
by Rebecca Shea
One of the greatest thrills in a home garden is spotting the early signs of spring. The enchanting colors and shapes of early bloomers lure us back out to the garden as the wonders and delights of another gardening season are awakened.
For many, the crocus is often considered the first sign of spring, but there are many other plants and shrubs that bloom even earlier.
A cottage garden favorite that flowers especially early is winter aconite. Its’ acid yellow bloom and bright green ruff pushes through snow and winter debris; a naturalized sweep of them in the landscape is a rare and fantastic sight.
A relative of the buttercup, this tuber plant comes from the deciduous woodlands of the Balkans, Italy and Southern France. Reaching only 4 inches in height, this small but mighty plant deserves to be planted in masse.
Aconite is available as dry tubers in late summer or even better “in the green” during early spring. “In the green” means the foliage is still fresh and the plants are in active growth; that’s the best way to transplant or divide.
Aconites share a gardening niche with the beautiful white snowdrop and the two grow, flower and display well together.
Snowdrop grows 6 to 9 inches tall and have inch-long bell shaped flowers of the purest-milky white. Their inner petals are marked at the tips with a precise green crescent ( look hard…you’ll see it).
Within the secret language of flowers, snowdrops symbolize hope and endurance. Coming up with vigor in the most difficult of garden conditions they display their endurance providing an early hope of winter’s end.
Snowdrop bulbs may stay in place for many years, multiplying and naturalizing in the garden. If you need to divide, move plants, share or trade plants do so in the Spring, just after flowers fade.
The easily grown jewels of spring that are crocuses dazzle and delight in white, cream, and shades of purple, lavender, and yellow. Native to the Mediterranean region, they are not particular about soil type, but they certainly do require good drainage.
Crocus corms are available in the autumn for spring blooming varieties. Corms like bulbs areswollen, underground stems where food is stored for the plant. But corm plants are slightly different than bulbs plants as corms do not develop the fleshy leaves that bulbs produce. Crocus have grass-like leaves.
Plant them in bunches within a rocky landscape for dramatic beauty or nestle them by the front door for a spirit lifting presentation.
Common shrubs such as the vernal witchhazel and pussy willow are also early bloomers. Each flowers’ before the foliage unfolds adding considerable vim to their display. As early as February, vernal witchhazel’s fragrant flowers burst forth in shades of yellow, gold and rusty-orange. They need a damp but sunny location for vigorous growth.
And the endearing Pussy Willow brings pure delight in late winter with a handsome display of soft silver flowers on shiny brown whip-like stems.
Both these shrub can grow to almost 20′ tall; because they are really trees. However, they can be kept as decorative shrubs by cutting branches annually for indoor forcing. This will keep their splendor at eye level in the garden.
In the Fall, witchhazel and pussy willow display colorful foliage. What dandies these varieties are! Quick growing, hardy, semi-deer resistant and exciting; I never understand why people don’t make more of a fuss over them.
Vernal witchhazel and pussy willow are easy to find in nurseries and catalogues but winter aconite and snowdrops may be difficult to find. Neighbors are an excellent resource but also try traditional catalogues such Brent Bulbs, White Flower Farms, and Old House Gardens.
Locally the Hudson Valley Seed Library is carrying a few organic fall blooming bulbs and they plan to increase their stock. Lets hope they bring organic winter aconite and snowdrops to us all. Catskill Native Nursery in Kerhonkson has a wonderful selection of native woodland early bloomers.
Carolyn’s Shade Gardens which is an online resource from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania makes available a variety of snowdrops each year. Stock is limited and prices can be very high for their exceptional heirloom varieties but do have a peek. You too might become a Galanthophile, the British term for snowdrop obsessed gardeners.
Each of us gardeners have our secret favorite spots where to find and enjoy these bloomers.
Watch carefully for some of these classic harbingers of spring as they are as ephemeral as the change of a season.