Well, the calendar says we are still in winter, but here in southern Indiana, we are in the midst of midwinter thaw, so it is easy forget we will eventually drop back to the miserables of cold, wet, winter.
I am willing to take what I can get, when I can get it, this time of the year. Fortunately, there are tough-as-nails early-blooming plants to lead us into the coming gardening seasons. Plants that can take cold, life-robbing winds with frozen soil and no snow cover while in bloom, continuing undamaged.
I have my favorites that make bundling up a bit against the cool winds and squishy paths worth the walk in my gardens.
First and foremost are witch-hazel trees and shrubs that began opening this year in mid-February. Normally, at least one of them, the species Hamamelis mollis, begins opening back in mid-December. (It has truly been a long, hard, winter.)
Now I see the remaining six trees are in full bloom, sending out sweet, soapy fragrance across the gardens. Some will still be in bloom the first of April due to individual flowers opening and closing with temperatures. [See third photo above; click on the arrows at the right base of the photo to see all four photos.)
Individual flowers range greatly in size from species to hybrid with the best of them resembling tiny pom-poms with their straplike petals. Colors range from clear lemon-yellow, to orange and almost red. Conifers as a background make a stand-out contrast.
To reflect the colors of the witch-hazels down to soil level, winter aconite (Eranthus) in its shades of bright yellow warms all the way to the soul on cold winter's day. Only three to five inches in height, including bloom, the six-petal flowers, dressed all in yellow, have a lacelike collar of bright green.
I think the color combination reflects sunshine and promise of new growth to come. [See second photo above.]
The first of the hellebore (Helleborus) hybrids are opening. Generally, it is the lighter colors, such as white or palest yellow, that open first, with darkest colors finishing up the parade.
The large, single rose-like flowers, are actually colorful bracts so they will last into April. Right now I have pale yellow fully open beckoning to the early stirring insects. [See first photo above.]
Next to the hellebores are snowdrops (Galanthus). Clumps of foliage push up perfect domes of soil and leaf litter, leaving some of the slower to emerge resembling brown bubbles. Stems tips form droplet-like buds of snow white that open with outer and inner petals often trimmed in deepest bright green. They quickly form clumps, and to a lesser degree, seed about to form drifts of delight. They never seem to be fazed by our weather. [See fourth photo above.]
Put them all together
Combine a witch-hazel of choice, three to six hellebores blooming in sunshine yellow interspersed with drifts of winter aconite and snowdrops for a winter show to reawaken the gardener -- even if Mother Nature chooses to roll over and go back to sleep under her blanket of snow.
Gene Bush, a nationally known garden writer, photographer, lecturer, and nursery owner, gardens on a shaded hillside in southern Indiana. His website is www.munchkinnursery.com. He also writes the Garden Clippin's Newsletter. To read more by Gene at Diggin' It, click here.