If you are still digging out from one of our winter snow storms, now is the time to be thinking that at some point the snow will melt and spring will come again. Really! Only a few more weeks before the earliest of our spring bulbs put on their show.
If you have planned ahead and planted bulbs in the fall, little surprises await you amongst the melting snow piles. The so called "minor" or small bulbs are our first herbaceous bloomers of the spring.
Some of the best places to come and see these early beauties are in the Woodland Garden, the Rock Wall, and the new Albright Winter Garden here at the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University
The botanical harbinger of spring is the first white nodding Snowdrop (Galanthus spp.), closely followed by the bright yellow buttercup-like, Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). Sheets of these beauties carpet the Woodland Garden, as they spread from a small initial clump by setting seeds that carry the offspring away from the parent.
These early spring bulbs grow, flower, and set seed under deciduous trees, before the tree leaf canopy develops. Neither of these plants are eaten by deer and other animals.
My favorite spring bulbs are the snowdrops. There were flowering snowdrops under the snow in one of our recent snowfalls. When the weather warmed up there were the snowdrops poking up through the melting snow.
Snowdrops grow from a bulb. The leaves start to emerge first, followed by a shoot that opens to reveal a small white flower with three outer splayed petal-like structures (or perianth segments) and three inner perianth segments that form a sort of tube. There can be little green marks on the inner and sometimes the outer segments. People that study and collect snowdrops are called "Galanthophiles." A passionate, if slightly obsessed, group of people - I am one!
The first snowdrop to emerge is the Giant snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii) which is only about 8 inches tall. This snowdrop is native to Turkey but has found a place in our gardens in the last hundred years. The leaves are gray green and strap-like. Usually there are two marks on the inner perianth segments.
These snowdrops seem to thrive in an area with good early spring sunshine. They will be happy under deciduous trees as they have not yet leafed out. Keep them away from the heavy shade of evergreens however. Good drainage is also important with all of these bulbs as rotting could be a problem.Do not plant them right next to a sprinkler system nozzle. The bulbs need some summer moisture but not wet.
A light top dressing of composted leaves or a fine mulch in the autumn keeps the white blooms from being mud splattered. Do not add a deep mulch or over fertilize. A little bone meal every other year in our area would be fine.
The smaller, and slightly later, snowdrop is the Common Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis). These snowdrops are found in clumps throughout our woods. They are easy care and die down after putting energy back into the bulb for next year. There are many other snowdrop species and cultivars, but many of them are difficult to find in the Nursery trade. If you are lucky a snowdrop growing friend will dig you up a bulb or two as the leaves are dying down, but when you can still see where the clump is growing. This way of transplanting snowdrops is referred to as moving "in the green."
The Buttercup relative, Winter Aconite, has to win prizes for being the cheeriest flower in our early spring gardens.The tiny, shiny yellow blooms of the Winter Aconite are surrounded by a bright green ruff of leaves. (Do not confuse this plant with the later flowering invasive nuisance called lesser celandine [Ranunculus ficaria] with rounded leaves).
Once the patch has been established for a few years, look closely around the clump of Winter Aconites and you will see little green ruffled leaves with no flowers. These will bloom next year so do not pull them out. As the flowers and leaves die down, dig up a scoop of the young plants, plus the soil that they are in. Pass it on to a gardening friend.
Later in spring the leaves wither away and there is no sign of the Winter Aconite until next March. You can try growing the Winter Aconite from dried up tubers that you buy in the autumn, but I have had no luck with these.
When the snow starts to melt do come and walk through the Woodland Garden and enjoy the ephemeral cheering beauty of these early spring bulbs.
Next month, in March, we will discuss the later spring flowering bulbs.
If you have any questions please feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com.
Jenny Rose Carey
Ambler Arboretum of Temple University