Early drops of sunshine glimmer in my drab garden

When the spring peepers begin to sing their evening love songs in the Northeast, where I lived for years, the irresistible marsh marigolds appear in moist places.

These tiny plants first charmed me one cloudy spring day as I followed a friend along the steppingstone path beside her home. Between the stones and spreading over the lawn lay a carpet of glossy, golden-yellow flowers with shiny, dark green, heart-shaped leaves.

Struck by their likeness to miniature buttercups, I exclaimed, "What are they?"

"Marsh marigolds," replied Carol. "Want some?"

"Oh, yes!"

Later, as she dug up some of the low plants she said, "Don't be surprised, now. Right after they finish blooming, they disappear, leaves and all. But they'll come up next spring. And spread!"

I had the perfect spot for them, a semi-shaded place where I was trying to create a small Japanese garden around a large birdbath. The latter was a salvaged factory sink I suspected the birds would love - and they did.

I planted a few marsh marigolds amid miniature daffodils near a concrete Japanese lantern. I scattered others along a curved path, where the taller sweet woodruff softened the cement blocks on which the birdbath stood.

After planting the marigolds, I delved into many garden books seeking information about these odd plants. Their proper name is "lesser celandine," and they belong to an old family of some 680 species called "Ranunculae."

Pliny the Elder gave the genus its botanical name Ranunculus - "rana" for frog, "unculus" for tiny because many are aquatic or marsh plants. Some "Ranunculae" are wild, while others - such as peonies and anemones - are cultivated for ornamental purposes, mainly in northern temperate and subarctic regions.

Who isn't familiar with another family member, the common buttercup? When I was a child, my sister would hold one under my chin to reflect the buttercup's glowing yellow. Then she'd tease, "Oh, you do love butter, don't you?"

My transplants continued to bloom until the end of May. Then: plop! Like the frogs for which they are named, they would vanish. Busy with summer tasks, I'd forget them until fall raking.

By then they had vanished completely. I thought the summer's severe drought might have killed them. Yet the next year, in late February, as if by magic, when the spring peepers were tuning up, my marsh marigolds would appear.

Invisible below the soil all summer, fall, and winter, these lesser celandines had slept. Now they were urged into fresh gleaming growth, a welcome contrast in my still-drab spring garden.

Author Diane Ackerman writes in "Cultivating Delight" (HarperCollins, 2001) that the early Persian poet Rumi said, "This outward spring and garden are a reflection of the inward garden."

When at times my own inward garden seems frozen in a winter of discontent, I take heart in the lesson taught by these "plants of the little frogs."

I can almost hear them whisper, "Be patient. Spring is coming." And my joy begins to glimmer through its winter.

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