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Plants that welcome spring

By Cathy Wilkinson BarashSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2003


One of my fondest childhood memories is of my father and me keeping our eyes peeled for the first "robin redbreasts" of the season. Since the birds often appeared at our feeders before the last snow had disappeared, my father called the colorful birds "the heralds of spring."

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To me, the word "heralds" conjured up an image from storybooks (and Disney movies) - rows of red-coated men who stood at attention, holding their golden horns at their sides, on either side of a red carpet. At an unseen signal, they raised their long horns and with their deep, loud music, announced the arrival of the king.

It took me some time to make the connection between the birds and the formation of trumpeters, and then it suddenly made sense. The birds' song announced that spring was around the corner.

As my awareness and powers of observation grew over the years, I realized that the robins were not the only harbingers of spring. There are many plants, perhaps not as showy or obvious as the robins, whose emergence and bloom proclaim - despite the temperature or calendar date - that spring is indeed around the corner.

Small but impressive

These bulbs may be called minor, but the role they play in the late-winter garden is major. They are small, yet they break the ice, so to speak, and can bloom through the snow, sparkling like multicolored gems in the dull gray of winter.

Perhaps the most heraldic of these plants is a diminutive (three to four inches high) daffodil, Narcissus asturiensis, with its golden-yellow trumpets that call out to passersby. Like other late-winter-blooming bulbs, its flowers are close to the ground, conserving warmth.

Despite its dainty appearance, it is tough, and can withstand snow, even once it is in bloom. Kneel down and get close enough and its light sweet fragrance reveals itself.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are often overlooked, especially in years with late snow cover, since their nodding white flowers provide little contrast against the snow. Seen next to dark soil or mulch, they are highly visible. The blooms persist for a couple of weeksto a month, depending on the temperature - the warmer the days, the shorter the period of bloom. Snowdrops naturalize freely, so a grouping of 15 to 25 bulbs can be divided into several clumps within a few years.

Snow crocus (Crocus tomasinianus) is the first of the crocuses to break ground. Smaller than the Dutch crocus, their colors run more in the pastel range - pale yellow, mauve, white. 'Snowbird' is one of my favorites with its white petals edged in purple-burgundy. As they open in the morning, they resemble miniature wood storks about to take flight.

Irises for late winter

Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are cheerful little blooms, resembling sunny buttercups floating on a ruff of green leaves. Just seeing them brings a smile to my face. Winter aconites are perhaps the least commonly grown minor bulbs, but they deserve more attention.

For years, I had problems growing them. I soaked the corms overnight as directed, planted them sideways (it is hard to tell top from bottom), but still I got few flowers in spring. It took years of failure to discover that my soil was too rich. When I planted them in poor, sandy soil along the edge of the gravel driveway, they flourished, set seed, naturalized, and soon I had dozens of blooms.

Mention iris, and the word conjures up an image of a tall plant with a largish flower - perhaps a multicolored bearded iris or a deep blue-purple Japanese iris. Yet, the genus includes two special species that bloom very early. Danford iris (Iris danfordiae), only three to four inches tall, bears a deep-buttery-yellow flower with a plumper look than most iris. It is a bit temperamental and often does not return to bloom a second year. But its beauty and color make it worth planting each fall as an annual.

Netted (or reticulated) iris (Iris reticulata) resembles a miniature Japanese iris (in the same height range as the Danford iris), except that its flowers appear before the leaves emerge. Once the narrow leaves come out, they rise several inches above the blossoms.