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East Coast Blooming List

February 2011


Leonard J. Buck Garden, Far Hills, New Jersey

Everyone is anxious for spring, especially early blooming perennials.
Beneath frozen, snow-covered ground, skunk cabbage, crocus, snowdrops, winter aconites and pheasant’s eye will soon peek through the surface to welcome warmer weather. While other perennials lay dormant, these first delicate blossoms of spring are a sign that the long days of winter are over, and that it is time to look forward to warmer days.

Symplocarpus foetidus, skunk cabbage, is a wetland plant found in low-lying areas of the garden. The first signs of skunk cabbage appear as early as February. The flower, which appears before the leaves, features a stalked, pale pink spadix about 1 inch long, studded with small yellow flowers. It is shielded by a mottled purple and green hood or spathe up to 6 inches tall.

The skunk cabbage flower generates enough heat to melt the surrounding snow by its chemical breakdown of nutrients. This is accompanied by a noticeable skunk-like odor which attracts the year’s first pollinators-flies. Once pollinated, the flower swells and develops into a fruit head.

By early May, the spathe slowly begins to wilt and a tightly-packed bud of leaves begins to grow. The bright green leaves unfold in a beautiful spiraling pattern and by mid-May are 3 to 4 feet long, flooding the wetland areas within the garden with green patches of skunk cabbage.

A homogeneous dark green canopy forms by mid-June. This stage is referred to as poor man’s hosta. At this time the leaves of skunk cabbage begin to decay. They don't dry up and fall onto the ground to become part of the leaf litter; skunk cabbage has its own characteristic way of decaying. Its leaves get small holes, begin to hang, and parts turn black and slimy and dissolve. Dissolution occurs rapidly, so that by the end of July or early August the leaves are gone. All that remains are bases of the leaf stalks and the plant’s fruit.

Fruit heads are roundish, about two inches in diameter with the deep, wine-red color of the spathe. They house numerous berry-like fruits, each containing one seed. In August the fruit head falls apart. The fruits lie on the ground—to be eaten, to decompose, or to germinate (either in the fall or next spring). Research has shown that the only way for a population of skunk cabbage to spread is through its seeds. In Greek Symplocarpus comes from symploke (a connection) and karpos (fruit), because the ovaries combine to make a single fruit.

Galanthus nivalis, snowdrops, are among the best of the little bulbs. From the Greek gala (milk) and anthos (flower), the name is given for the milky white color of the flowers. Performing reliably, their leaves and flower bud emerge together, piercing through frozen soil unharmed.

Solitary flowers dangle from erect stems, surrounded by arching strap-like leaves. They bloom throughout Buck Garden in sun or light shade under deciduous trees, along the woodland edge, or in the flowering beds with Eranthus hymelis, winter aconite.

When Eranthus hymelis, winter aconite, blooms it blankets the ground gold. From the Greek er(spring) and anthos (flower), the name is given for their very early flowering. A decorative collar of indented green leaves surrounds a solitary yellow flower resembling a buttercup. They grow in sun or light shade in humus-rich soil. Winter aconite produce a generous amount of seed and over time will form large colonies throughout your garden. You can see masses of the bright yellow flower growing happily in the Kennel Field and elsewhere in the garden.

One of the rarest of late winter-early spring bulbs is Adonis amurensis, pheasant’s eye. Adonis appears to be a delicate plant, but it is able to make its way through the snows of late winter to bloom in March. It has ferny green foliage, purple sepals and a yellow flower. Pheasant’s eye is an Asian species found on open slopes and in scrub areas.

Adonis is wonderful in any landscape, but makes a particularly good addition to a winter rock garden. You can see Adonis’s lovely, intricate golden flowers tucked away on Big Rock and Polypody Rock. Adonis, meaning beautiful, was the young handsome lover of Aphrodite from whose blood, according to fable, the Adonis flower sprung.

Crocus tommasinianus, snow crocus or woodland crocus, are one of the first flowers to bloom in spring, which makes them popular with gardeners. Flowering time varies from the late winter for C. tommasinianus to the later large Giant Dutch crocuses, C. vernus. A waxy cuticle protects its flowers and leaves from frost, so it is not uncommon to see them blooming through a light, late snowfall. Its corms produce long, narrow, pointed leaves and urn-shaped flowers which rise from the ground like delicate chalices.

Crocus bloom in sun or light shade and prefer humus-rich loam soil in a range of habitats including woodland, scrub and meadows. One can attain a sweep of woodland crocus easily because their corms spread quickly and they are generally inexpensive. They are eye-catching when planted in mass under deciduous trees or at the edge of the lawn.

The dark reddish purple of C. tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’ stands out along the rock wall leading to Buck Garden’s Maintenance Building and the pure white C. vernus ‘Joan d Arc’ greets you at the Visitor Center.
There is a distinction between crocuses and autumn-crocuses. True crocuses, belong to the genus Crocus and generally bloom in spring, but they can also bloom in autumn, making the distinction difficult.

Autumn crocuses belong to the genera Colchicum in the lily family. They usually bloom in fall, but one species of Colchicum blooms in the spring. But have no fear, the two genera are easily distinguished. Crocus flowers have three stamens and one style with three stigmas; Colchicum have six stamens and three long slender styles. Saffron is a product of the autumn flowering Crocus sativus. The Greek krokos means “saffron.”

Spring marks the end of winter, a time when the sleeping earth reawakens and nature is reborn. All impatient gardeners need to witness this surge of spring before the second wave of herbaceous perennials begins their blooming period. We look forward to them with much anticipation. Celebrate spring 2011 with a visit to the Leonard J. Buck Garden.

- Tricia Scibilia, interpretive gardener, Leonard J. Buck Garden, Somerset County Park Commission:
**Photos by Tricia Scibilia unless otherwise noted

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