Catherine Thomas pays homage to the changing season with a celebration of some floral favourites that signal the start of spring
At this time of year our gardens are full of the promise of future delights. The ochres, fawns and russets of winter are gradually showing the green shoots of new life. Low springtime sun filters through the bare branches of trees and shrubs, spotlighting fresh new leaves and jewel-like delicate blooms.
First off, in mid-February and lasting well into March, are wonderful drifts of snowdrops, so characteristic of an early English spring, although they are not natives and were known only as garden plants in Elizabethan times. To my mind they are best enjoyed en masse although the detail of the pretty threepetalled flowers is also a delight. There are wonderful displays of snowdrops at Heale House in the Woodford Valley (healegarden.co.uk). There you will also find the winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, massed in the dry, inhospitable spaces under trees. Their neat little globular golden flowers are surrounded by a smart green ruff, giving them a rather jolly appearance. I have an indelible memory of seeing a line of the white flowering quince, Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’, trained against a low retaining wall in the gardens at Heale House. The pure white flowers on black branches were reminiscent of piano keys. This plant is a wonderful harbinger of spring and I once bought a house because of a glorious red form of Chaenomeles trained against a garden wall. We lived happily in the house for 11 years, so it was a wise choice.
The apparently fragile Crocus tommasinianus is one of my favourite flowers. I love its simplicity and winsome habit of naturalising and spreading in short grass. It is the earliest crocus to flower and has soft, silvery mauve petals on translucent white stems. When it opens to the sun, intensely golden stamens make a dazzling contrast with the petals. As it flowers so early the leaves have usually died back conveniently before you need to mow the lawn. There are some cultivars with perhaps bigger or more strongly coloured flowers but I prefer the delicacy of this species.
Many early spring flowerers are woodlanders, taking advantage of the light afforded by the bare branches of deciduous trees to grow and flower before the overhead canopies exclude sunlight and thirsty tree roots take up soil moisture. Among these are the dainty windflowers or wood anemone, Anenome nemorosa. They are well named as they always seem to be fluttering in the March wind. Transplant them after flowering when the rhizomes are just thin roots like black boot straps, and be patient – they take time to establish themselves. A garden anemone, Anenome blanda, lacks the dancing grace of the native windflower but has more significant flowers, creating a wonderful sea of blue in the same woodland habitat.
Legends of the daff
There is a bank on the A30 near Ansty where I always look out for the first wild primroses. It faces south and is always reliably carpeted in the soft yellow blooms so reminiscent of my childhood in Devon. The bank is probably clay as primroses, Primula vulgaris, are usually plants of damp valleys and woodland edges. Its close relative, the cowslip, Primula veris, is found on higher and dryer slopes. In between you may find the naturally occurring hybrid oxlip, Primula veris x vulgaris.
The flower most associated with March, Mother’s Day, equinoctial gales and spring showers is the daffodil. It is said to be all that was left of Narcissus, the beautiful Greek youth who was so transfixed by his own reflection in water that he died. All that was found in his place was the flower we know as Narcissus. Our wild daffodil, also known as the Lent lily, N. pseudonarcissus, was immortalised by the poet Wordsworth. It is a dainty bloom but its fragile appearance belies its ability to dance through showers and gales, whilst sparkling in spring sunshine. Some of my favourite garden daffodils are cultivars of narcissus species, such as N. ‘Thalia’ and N. ‘Jack Snipe’, which retain the delicate simplicity of the wild forms but flower more prolifically. Their relatively small stature means that the dying foliage is easily obscured by the fresh new leaves of early summer plants, such as the hardy geraniums. Fortunately, I rarely see daffodil leaves tied in knots these days but at one time it was considered the correct, or perhaps just the tidiest, method.
There was once a tradition of children gathering wildflower bouquets on their way to church on Mothering Sunday. I like to think some of these old favourites would have been among the blooms presented to their mothers in haphazard bunches.