Things are stirring in the garden and the early flowering plants are coming to life. Despite the February temperatures, many plants are responding to the longer hours of daylight and are preparing to make their show, to delight us all.
Snowdrops and Hellebores are some of the first to send up their flowering spikes. Snowdrops are an amazing group of plants. In different species they can flower from November right through until March, whatever the weather. They have an inbuilt system of anti-freeze although they may look a little sad after a hard nights frost, they soon resume their shape and size, returning to the upright!
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) can be planted as drifts in woodland and grass or in clumps in other areas of the garden. One of the key elements I remember, is that I want to see them when they come out – so do not hide them away! Plant them close to a walkway or path or in pots by the back door.
Snowdrops are a bit of a cult plant – loved by galanthophiles who may pay silly money for a single bulb of a named variety. I recently received a catalogue from a known snowdrop nursery and counted 189 varieties which they list! I have four types in my garden, and they are all delightful, I don’t think I have need for the other 185! The three outer petals can be different shapes and three inner petals can all be marked slightly differently with green markings. Hence all the different names. They can be single or double flowers with green or yellow ovaries ( a small swelling at the top of the flower).
They are easy to grow and need little attention, once they have been planted ‘in the green’ – they do not like to be dried out and come back most easily if planted once they have finished flowering. They do well under shrubs and hedges, where the leaves are yet to break. Every two to three years, the clumps should be split and replanted, giving space to each bulb and the small offsets that have appeared. This is the moment to share them with your friends – a welcome pot of spring hope.
In ancient times, in Yorkshire, it was customary for the girls of the village to collect bunches of snowdrops and to wear them as symbols of purity on Candlemas (February 2nd) – the feast of the Virgin Mary.
Hellebores, Christmas or Lenten roses as they are also known (although they are not related to roses in any way), bring colour to the early spring garden in a range from white to pink and through to dark purple almost black. They have nodding heads and some look up and out and others look at the soil, they are without doubt one of my favourite plants and I look forward every year to their appearance. They flower for a long period, lasting well into spring. They grow anywhere and are happy it seems in full light or shady areas. The only attention they need is to cut off their rather messy leathery leaves before they flower, so you can see the pretty blooms. They like fertile evenly moist soil. They are great for early pollinators and are sought out by Queen Bumble Bees when they first wake up.
When choosing which Hellebores to grow, it is best to see them in flower, as there is so much variety, especially in the later flowering hellebores or the oriental hellebores. They may be plain or speckled on their inner flowers and have marked colours on the backs of their petals. They may be smooth ended petals or sharply pointed. They can be single or double, remembering that the bees are able to get into the single flowers but not the doubles so easily. However, the choice is up to you!
Crocus are definitely harbingers of spring and the earliest of all is the species C. tommasinianus. They grow from a corm with a thin straight leaf often with a sliver stripe down the centre. The flowers are goblet shaped and often scented (if you can get down that far!)
Tommies as they are affectionately known give a grand show when they provide a carpet of colour from early February onwards, and they are just beginning to show themselves. When the sun shines, there is no greater pleasure than to see the tommies (crocus tommasinianus) flowering their hearts out. They are pale mauve with long golden stamens which really show themselves. They naturalise very easily and spread gently about, though they could never be called a nuisance, as they flower so early in the year. They too are loved by the early bees, providing welcome pollen, when there is little else in flower.
They thrive in full sun, or in light dappled shade but prefer the former. Otherwise, they get on with life, very much undeterred and without any specific attention.
My final favourite flower at this time of year, brings pleasure and the hope of great things to come in the garden are the little golden aconites (Eranthis hyemalis). They are a short golden globe with a feathery collar, the petals look like a buttercup as they surround the centre of the flower, and they are a gorgeous bold yellow. They grow in full sun and seed themselves gently around. Once again, they thrive with little attention at the base of hedges, under shrubs or in full sun near a path.
If you want to start to grow these, it is best to purchase some in the green as they have notoriously difficult bulbs to find in the soil, so moving or splitting them does not work well. I have had luck with the seed but it takes much patience and several seasons before they reward you with the golden globes.
It is always good to have cheer in the garden so early in the year, so perhaps some or all of the above will give you options. Any or all of the plants can be found at good garden centres or at specialist nurseries on-line.
Here at North Leeds Garden Design we use lots of bulbs to highlight the start of spring and give your garden a colour boost just when you need it coming out of winter.