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March 2013

Spring Peepers Flourish in a New Season

Leonard J. Buck Garden, Far Hills, NJ

The true harbingers of spring have arrived at the Leonard J. Buck Garden.Plants such as winter aconite, snowdrops, pheasant’s eye, crocus, dwarf blue iris, glory-of-the-snow and Siberian squill, often described as spring ephemerals, thrive in the cool, damp days of early spring and disappear before other plants have a chance to upstage them. They are an essential component of the spring garden and, one by one, are coming into bloom.

Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite, and Galanthus nivalis, snowdrops, are the first bulbs to appear in spring. They possess the ability to withstand hard frost and exposure while in growth. Displaying an unfaltering tolerance to the cold they send forth their blooms and foliage through snow-packed grounds year after year.

Winter aconite is native to southern Europe and temperate Asia. The name is from the Greek er, spring, and anthos, flower. It multiplies readily, becoming more spectacular with passing years. Its small white bulbs produce a decorative collar of frilly green leaves surrounding a yellow buttercup flower. Preferring sun or light shade, winter aconite is spectacular planted in clumps beneath deep-rooted deciduous trees and shrubs. It’s a beautiful sight when winter aconite seeds itself around forming large colonies in the garden and throughout the woods.

The common snowdrop is native to Europe and western Asia. The name comes from the Greek gala, milk, and anthos, flower. Growing 4 inches tall, snowdrops have two strap-like, gray-green leaves and a bell-shaped, nodding white flower with green markings outside its petals. They often poke their heads up through the snow covered landscape. Growing in average soil in full sun to part shade snowdrops lend themselves to many places in the garden They grow particularly well under deciduous trees where exposure to sun is full in early spring but gradually changes to part shade as the trees leaf out. Snowdrops naturalize by self-sowing and bulb offsets. Each year the bloom display becomes more lush and dramatic resulting in an impressive carpet of white. For their hardiness and bloom season, they are the quintessential bulb. Snowdrops make good companions with winter aconite.

Adonis amurensis, yellow pheasant’s eye, bears fern-like foliage and 2-inch semi-double, buttercup yellow flowers in late winter-early spring. This perennial Ranunculus relative grows 1 foot tall and forms clumps in full sun to partial shade in moist, well-drained, humus enriched soil. It performs well in woodland settings, cultivated beds and rock gardens. Adonis is self-seeding and is pollinated by bees, flies and beetles. Legend has it that the Greek god, Adonis, lover of Aphrodite, changed into this plant after death. Adonis is native to the hills of Japanese islands and China along the Amur river from which the plant derives its species name.

Crocus vernus, spring crocus, are perhaps the most familiar of the early spring bulbs. Their goblet-shaped blossoms with contrasting colors of gold, purple, lilac or white, sometimes with dark feathering or stripes on the outside, are perennial favorites in the garden. Native to southern Europe, crocus grow 6-8 inches tall with spiky, green leaves and 3-inch white and purple flowers in early spring. They are quite inexpensive which is good because no matter how many you plant, it is never enough! Spring crocus are easily forced in pots, and are usually the first plants of the season to be on sale in supermarkets and garden centers. Crocus flowers close at night and open in the morning, and usually remain closed on cloudy days.

Crocus chrysanthus and Crocus tommasinianus have daintier blossoms and are native to the Mediterranean and central Europe. They bloom with several flowers per corm, each ranging from 0.5 - 1.5” long. Both species are terrific naturalizers, spreading in lawns, borders and rock gardens. There are numerous cultivars. C. chrysanthus are called snow crocuses because they bloom on the edges and openings of snow melt.

C. chrysanthus 'Cream Beauty': light creamy yellow with golden throats, orange stamens
C. chrysanthus 'Gipsy Girl': yellow with deep, bronze-purple feathering, orange pistil
C. tommasinianus produces variable colors of pale to deep lilac with a white heart C. tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’: deep reddish-purple
C. tommasinianus ‘Jeanne d’Arc’: large, pure white with orange pistil

The low growing Iris reticulate, dwarf blue iris, is another early bloomer. The species’ name refers to the reticulated, or netlike, tunic that covers the dry bulb, sometimes commonly called “netted iris.” Its light blue to purple blossoms give a substantial lift to the early spring garden. The true species has royal-purple standards and falls marked with a gold central stripe. The sweetly fragrant 4-inch blossoms are held over grass-like foliage. Dwarf blue iris are must haves for the rock garden or wildflower meadow.

I. reticulata ‘Harmony’: bluebird-blue standards, royal blue falls, white edged gold crest on falls
I. reticulata ’Pixie’: early bloomer with richest and deepest blue of all, almost black falls.
I. reticulate ‘J.S. Dijt’: late bloomer, dark reddish-purple falls, purple standards.

Two more bulbs keep the early spring garden interesting: Chionodoxa luciliae, glory-of-the-snow, and Scilla sibirica, Siberian squill. Both bloom for approximately three weeks and are tolerant of snow and freezing temperatures. Glory-of-the-snow has small lavender-blue, star-shaped blossoms with a white eye. The name comes from the Greek chion, snow, and doxa glory. Siberian squill has electric blue, bell-shaped blossoms on spikes with strap-like leaves. Their blossoms have a pleasant floral fragrance and attract bees and other pollinating insects. The deep blue blossoms of Siberian squill can create an ocean of blue. While Siberian squill’s name suggests that the plant originated in Siberia, it actually is native to other areas of Russia and Eurasia.

Both bulbs naturalize in rock and woodland gardens and lawns, seeding themselves without much encouragement. They are easy to plant, bloom dependably, are relatively inexpensive and look marvelous en masse. Fortunately, glory-of-the-snow and Siberian squill are not a preferred food of voles, chipmunks, rabbits or deer like many other plants in the lily family.

Spring plants are taking advantage of the season’s early sunlight and thrusting through snow, and matted leaf litter, and exploding onto the scene. Come see them at the Leonard J. Buck Garden.

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

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