DES MOINES, IOWA — 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."
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.
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.
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.
My favorite netted iris is a gorgeous deep sky blue. A number of cultivars have been developed that extend the color range from white to light blue to deep purple. Netted iris pair well with both the Danford iris and snow crocus.
From its common name - glory-of-the-snow - the assumption that Chionodoxa lucilliae blooms early is correct. Beautiful star-shaped blue flowers with white centers face skyward. They naturalize and self-seed freely, so you are likely to see quite a variation in the blue hue as well as in the size of the white center.
When I lived on Long Island, we had a hillside covered with glory-of-the-snow interspersed with early daffodils (Narcissus 'Small Talk'). Nothing beats the color combination and contrast of blue and yellow; the colors bespeak spring.
For a good show from most of the minor bulbs, it is best to plant them in large groupings. Avoid planting them in rows, like little soldiers. Instead, plant them in natural-looking swaths or groupings. Don't skimp when buying and planting these bulbs. Three winter aconites are barely noticeable, yet a grouping of 15 to 25 is eye-catching, as are 100 or more snow crocuses. I usually plant the bulbs about an inch closer than recommended so they form ground-covering clusters of foliage and blooms.
Many of the bulbs, with the exception of winter aconite, make great cut flowers. Use a salt shaker, antique ink bottle, or other small vessel as a vase. The white blooms of snowdrops are particularly handsome in a cobalt-blue glass container.
Dogwoods conjure up images of the beautiful native dogwoods (Cornus florida) with their pink or white flowers in April and May. Yet, it is months earlier when the first of the dogwoods, confusingly named Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), blooms. Looking like small greenish-yellow star bursts, the flowers show off best when the tree is planted with an evergreen shrub or tree as a backdrop. The blooms are very lightly scented. Once pollinated, they give rise to small deep red berries that are edible, although the birds are most likely to beat us to them.
For large hanging panicles of highly fragrant flowers, look no further than the winter hazels. Buttercup winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora) has more petite flowers than Chinese winter hazel (C. sinensis), while those of C. spicata are more rigid and spiky in their appearance. Any of these three- to four-foot shrubs enhances a garden.
Although rhododendrons and azaleas are thought of as shrubs that add to the riot of late spring color, two are surprising in their eagerness to show their beauty. Sometimes confused, as they both bear lovely pinky-mauve flowers, still they are easily distinguishable.
Korean azalea (Rhododendron mucronulatum) usually blooms first and is deciduous, with flowers appearing before the leaves pop out. Rhododendron dauricum is an evergreen; it retains its small leaves, which may take on a purplish tinge in winter. Plant either in front of an early-blooming forsythia, such as 'Beatrice Ferrand' to enhance the attractiveness of both plants.
Spring heath (Erica carnea) is under- appreciated and underutilized. It makes a handsome evergreen ground cover with its narrow - almost needlelike - deep green leaves. The early blooms resemble those of andromeda (Pieris japonica). I like to mix the white-flowered 'Springwood White' with the purplish 'Porter's Red' for contrast.
In recent years the robins have often stayed through the winter, so they have lost the significance they had in my childhood. Instead, early-flowering plants speak to me. Each in its own inimitable way calls attention to itself while at the same reminding me that the full-blown beauty of spring will follow in due time.
Indeed, these plants transition the garden from the bleakness of winter to the technicolor display of spring.