The Dirt: Spring’s little signs

In Mother Nature, harbingers abound, like news flashes of what’s to come. September’s Indian summer prepares us for October’s colors and sweatshirts. The katydids of August—called “school bugs” when I was a child—remind us that the laziness of summer is fading. Leaves whipping off trees in late November send us indoors for winter hibernation.

One bloom at a time: When March still blusters with spring chills, bloodroot blooms as small hint of the coming spring. Photo by Cinthia Milner

But my favorite seasonal harbingers presage the coming of spring. My garden hints at the season with more certainty than any arbitrary number in my datebook. Long before the roaring winds of March or the forsythia and weeping cherries make their bold proclamations, winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa forbesii), Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) and the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) mark the seasonal shift with early blooms.

Glory-of-the-snow blankets my perennial bed in February. Periwinkle blue and 2 inches high, it earns its name by blooming profusely against the frigid white. Beat that, you forsythias. My winter aconite goes one better, shining bright yellow in January, when the rest of us are still curled up by the fire. Less than 4 inches tall, this little flower braves winter’s fierce winds and 20-degree temperatures to remind me that spring will come.

But it’s the Lenten rose that almost breaks my heart. I spend all of Lent trying to decide what I will sacrifice, and usually, Easter has come and gone before I make up my mind. The Lenten rose, with its bent purple-and-white blooms, strains against winds and cold rains, determined to deliver its message: Winter will end, and spring will come. It seems impossible that such delicate flowers could survive a freezing rain, but when I brush back the leaves after a spate of such weather, there it is, still blooming away. Can any redbud do that?

These heralds get little attention, often going unnoticed and unappreciated. Even the most dedicated gardeners generally prefer the flashier tulips and later daffodils to these delicate but hardy perennial flowers. The key word here is “hardy.” While forsythias, cherries, redbuds and dogwoods wilt when the temperature drops below freezing, these harbingers of spring don’t just survive: They bloom and thrive. I wish I were of such hardy stock.

Yet, like other gardeners, I love and yearn for the bolder hues of those later-blooming flowers. I’m impatient for that first whiff of lilac in the air. Still, I can’t help but love the tenacious little flowers that precede them, braving the worst conditions to remind me that winter will soon end.

Every year I start to get a little anxious about my garden, anticipating spring. Yet when the sun finally melts away that last patch of frost on the ground, I find only brown earth. I hold my breath, waiting to see if it all will return—the heavenly herbs, glorious peonies, fragrant roses and, oh, all the rest—if, indeed, they’ve survived another winter. How, I wonder, could such beauty emerge from the long, harsh and unforgiving days of winter?

Nonetheless, my spring harbingers remind me that my garden’s still there, slumbering beneath the dark, wet soil, just waiting for the right conditions. Crocuses, whose purple, white and yellow February blooms defy the gray days of winter, make a parade along my driveway, getting in step with striped squill (Puschkinia scilliodes). In the deadest days of winter, they keep my hopes alive.

As warmer days approach, my dog, Platypus, and I venture further up the mountain on our daily walks. There, barely visible bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), trillium (Trillium cernuum) and iris (Iris cristata) are all on hand to announce spring, as well. It seems that there cannot be too many messengers. And by about mid-March, when they show themselves, I am finally convinced that spring will surely come.

But if not for my spring harbingers, I don’t know if I would rise from my drowsy nest beside the wood stove. They’re the ones reminding me that winter’s but a season, and spring is on the horizon. They’re the ones who shake me awake. “Get up! Get ready!” they seem to say. “There is much work to do: Spring is almost here!”

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]

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5 thoughts on “The Dirt: Spring’s little signs

  1. Frankie Owen

    What a wonderful article. I love learning all the new “words” that Ms. Milner uses because I am not a gardener, but I do love the flowers and I do love spring.

  2. The Chionodoxa forbesii is my current favorite of the small spring bulbs. The ‘Blue Giant’ cultivar is really nice.

    Scilla siberica has the same intense blue and small stature of the Chionodoxa, but its flowers face down.

    I am all for moving the Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis right into the shady perennial bed. The flower is a brief spectacular show, but the foliage is quite interesting in shape and texture and lasts at least through the summer months.

  3. Cinthia Milner

    Christopher, hi. Chionodoxa forbesii is my favorite as well. I have a cultivar that I planted years ago without writing down the name, that I love as well. Same blue color, only very small. The Scilla is also a favorite. I brought my trout lilies into my shade garden and they are lovely right now. So far, my bloodroot is still in the woods behind the house. I didn’t have much luck transplanting, dividing or seeding it. Any hints?

  4. Cinthia, I have not tried transplanting the bloodroot yet. Now that my septic drain field is in and I can begin to garden the main area, that is on the list. I did find the Ramp seedlings had come up this spring from seed sown in fall 2007.

    Bloodroot has a pretty thick rhizome which I would think would transplant easily. I’ll have to check on the success of the transplant that went to Tennessee. Otherwise the rule is you have to kill something three times before give up.

  5. Cinthia Milner

    Well, then this is the ultimate test…this will be my third time. Transplanted some about a month ago. I’ll let you know if they make it, otherwise I will enjoy them in my woods!

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