Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Snow Piercers

Snowdrops are the first flowers to bloom in the winter here. You can’t really call them spring flowers when they pop up in February, or even January some years. They are not natives, but they naturalize well and are not invasive. I planted them my first autumn here. In more than 35 years, their clumps have expanded and thickened. They seem to come up a little earlier after their first few years in this climate. Last year, I saw several blooms on Twelfth Night, January 6. This year, it was closer to the end of January, and I had to brush leaves away from the magic spot by a tall stone where they bloom earliest to see the white buds rising from the earth.

In my yard, the most reliable spot for early snowdrop sightings is between a walnut and a cedar. They emerge triumphant there and hang above the snow until the thaw begins, attracting bees on sunny days. They spring up so early that shade does not hinder their growth. I planted a row of snowdrop bulbs across a sunny flowerbed several decades ago. Those bloom latest of all, although they form a bushy row, slashing through a bed of periwinkle. Their blossoms often last through March, and sometimes into April.

A friend who spent a sabbatical year in the Netherlands told me that a field near his house bloomed white as snow in February. To spread so far, the colony must have been several hundred years old. I lived in Luxembourg for a year, long ago. The houses on my block all faced the street, with a large central courtyard divided among individual lots within the interior walls. In February white patches sprang up all through the middle of the block, jumping fences and dotting each garden with silver-green snow. My landlady brought me a small bouquet from her garden. She told me their name in French: perce-neige, snow-piercers. Some people say it's bad luck to bring the blooms inside, but that little nosegay delighted me.

Snowdrops seem to be overlooked at fall bulb-planting time. They often appear in the last few pages of catalogs under the heading “Others,” lost among reams of tulips and daffodils. Even among my gardening and beekeeping friends, I still meet people who do not grow them. I’ve taken to buying bulbs in multiples of 50 in the fall and giving them away to anyone who is willing to start hunting for flowers in February.

There are 75 varieties of galanthus, but only a few are readily available. They are members of the amaryllis family, native to Eurasia; their botanical name means “milk-white.” They thrive in cold weather and tolerate warmer winters. Deer and rabbits don’t eat them. They can be transplanted “in the green,” as soon as the blooms have withered in spring. They usually appear a good month before the crocuses and the native wildflowers, providing early forage for bees. Best of all for idiot gardeners like me, they are just about foolproof to grow. Discovering their bending blossoms when the snow begins to melt revives my spirit every year.