I am always amazed to walk through my gardens in late winter and very early spring to discover how many bulbs and plants were actually putting on a show long before I thought it was time for gardening season to start. I was so enchanted by these very early bloomers that I started taking notes until I was able to plan a garden that I could see easily through my windows in early spring that would enchant me even while the snow was still falling in the yard. It doesn't take much - just a few blooms here and there - to make us feel hope that winter will end and spring will soon be here.
And is there anything more enchanting than seeing flowers pushing through the snow?
For me, the earliest show is that from Helleborus argutifolius. They don't actually flower but they put out chartreuse colored buds in winter - a promise of things to come that always alerts me that other treats are on the way. And when those buds finally open, I know that the really early hellebore - H. Niger 'Buis' will be in full flower. H. niger is sometimes called the "Christmas Rose" because in its warmer areas, it actually will bloom that early - and the blooms last and last, turning to a pale rose color at the edges before fading to green. Even then, they will stay open, something like the way the flowers of the hydrangea do, and sometimes well into summer.
Meanwhile the "Lenten Rose" - H. orientalis - will be putting out its buds and then flowering madly in a variety of lovely colors from the palest pink to the deepest burgundy and all things in between - including some flowers with intriguing speckles. There is even a double form of these flowers that really stands out in the early garden.
I have seen all of these flowering in snow. The milder the winter, the earlier they bloom - and they all go on for such a long time that I make sure to plant masses of them in my early spring-late winter garden. They have evergreen leaves, which mean they provide some color and texture all winter. When the buds start to form, the leaves will start to look noticeably tired. So I go out and cut them off - which is my first chance to see the exciting sight of little buds forming beneath the leaves of the later H. Orientalis plants. The flowers show off much better without the foliage - but by the time the blooms are in full regalia, new leaves will also be growing at an amazing pace. Altogether I think hellebores are among the true wonders of the garden.
While the Hellebores are doing their thing, the Winter Aconite start going. They got their name for a very obvious reason - they start blooming in February, well in advance of spring. Winter aconites look a bit like crocus, but even more closely resemble that very summery flower, the buttercup with flowers in a clear, sunshine golden color.
These are tiny - a mere 2-3" high and look great is a mass. And they are easy to tuck in almost anywhere you need a spot of early color. Snowdrops can bloom even earlier in some areas of the country - as early as January. To me these fragile looking flowers are true miracles - so seemingly weak yet staunchly standing up to snow and ice, blooming valiantly. They are pure white - perhaps a disadvantage when it snows - but then if it snows, many of these early spring beauties are buried anyway. They'll pop right back up when things melt, seeming doubly miraculous.
Another early bloomer is Fritillaria meleagris, the Checkered Lily - also sometimes called the Guinea Hen Flower. The petals on these little flowers really do look as though they had a checkered pattern on them - even the pure white version, if you look closely. A curious thing about these flowers - and snowdrops and most of the hellebores - is that the flowers tend to face the ground - almost as if the sunshine was too bright for them after a long winter of dormancy. I can never resist getting down on my knees to peek into their little faces. It's the start of a long season of getting reacquainted with my plants.
Glory of the Snow
In contrast, Glory of the Snow comes out anywhere between February and March, but its bright blue flowers with white centers face boldly to the sky. These self-seed easily and soon can not only carpet the early spring garden but add little patches of blue to the lawn. They look especially glorious (in order to live up to their nickname) interplanted with the yellow of aconitum, crocuses, early daffodils and Iris reticulata.
Snow crocuses are the early, small ones - but don't let the size fool you. These tiny powerhouses can make an absolutely gorgeous tapestry in the lawn and garden if planted in a naturalized mix - or in drifts of color should you prefer. The Jumbo crocus follow very shortly, adding their joyous tones to the mix. These are really terrific when planted in the lawn itself. Just lift the sod and scatter them, then lay the sod back down. In spring, you and passerbys will have a delightful surprise - and when it's time to mow they will already have started going dormant, so you don't have to let the lawn get shabby looking.
Another great early bloomer is the little Iris reticulata. These are tiny and make great rock garden plants but also do well in the ordinary garden, spreading quickly to provide bright patches of color in January and February. The earliest is I. reticulata 'Danfordiae' in January - another flower in sunshine yellow which is soon followed by many other varieties in shades of sky blue, violet, purple and purplish red - a truly joyous mix of color that makes a really compelling sight in the late winter garden.
And don't forget the daffodils! Many of the tiny ones are also early risers - like children beating their parents up on Christmas day (although these kids usually wait until February.) Good early daffs include the little golden 'Dickcissel', pink and white 'Reggae' (and you don't see much pink at this early season except for the hellebores!) and the very tiny (only 6") 'Tete-aTete' - which is fragrant!
Can you believe that you can get so much color and excitement in your garden in winter? Believe me, it's true - and there is never a time when we need color more. Try planting several drifts of some of these early charmers where you can easily see them - and I promise you that spring will seem to come far more quickly than usual.