I saw a pair of swallows and a skylark both in one day – it must be spring. Not that you would really know it – as I write we are still experiencing bleak cold days and the ground is still sodden – but at least once the first early signs appear it feels as if we are on our way.
This past weekend we did our first mow for many months – and spent as much time raking up grass afterwards as we did actually mowing. The smell of newly cut spring grass is enough to induce summerlust and now suddenly we are noticing fattening buds on the trees and flowers emerging from under inches of dead leaves.
I’m not sure why so many spring treasures are so tiny, and why they seem to reside underneath trees rather than out in the open, but there is something incredibly lovely about plants popping up under trees, grasping the first of the warm spring sun before they have to put up with the long shady days of summer.
One of my favourite woodland bulbs is the Galanthus – the true English Snowdrops. I love their glaucous foliage for a start – so many bulbs have very dull leaves – but their sweet little pure white flowers are truly exquisite, dotted artistically with green spots. I bought my first tiny clump many years ago, and every year I patiently awaited their return, occasionally dividing them so that now we have clumps all over the garden. They have now been heavily bred to include many early and late flowering varieties – but the true species is hard to beat. I do even have a double flowered one, but I think I still prefer the species.
And so it goes for the hellebores, which start to flower in late winter and continue right through early to mid spring. Hellebores have been the height of fashion for many years now – here in Tasmania the fervour was started with a pure white double – ‘Betty R’- that was discovered as a chance seedling in a garden not far from here owned by the late Mrs Ranicar and cultivated by John Dudley of the Elizabeth Town Nursery. I have drifts of this particular hellebore – and it is lovely. But to really appreciate it, one has to get down and turn the shy blooms upwards – otherwise, the whole plant is pulled down by the weight of the flowers. The singles are much more eager to please and once happy, will self sow and colonise shady spots with ease. They are the classic woodland plant – for obvious reasons.
Yellow seems to be a common colour in spring – obviously daffodils come to mind – but I also have a very sweet anemone called Anemone seemani. It spreads as so many anemones do, by underground tubers, but not as vigorously as others of the genus. Its flowers are the loveliest lemon yellow and for some reason it seems to have made its home right against the base of a birch tree, despite the summer dry in that spot. All anemones are lovely, but this one particularly so.
The classic colour combo – yellow and blue – is easily achieved in spring, as our orchard is overflowing with daffodils and grape hyacinths. But I also have ever-increasing clumps of another sweet little blue bulb – the Chionodoxa. It is minute, hardly rising above ground, but it is a blue that is unforgettable. Sadly, its stems make it too short to use as a cut flower, but at least that means it can grace the garden for a little longer than most. There are quite a few varieties of this little bulb available, and I am not sure which one it is that I have, but it is exceptionally pretty.
My favourite spring bulb though, is the fritillaries. Over the years I have spent more money than I care to remember on countless varieties of these incredible plants, but I really only have one species that has made Wychwood its home, Fritillaria meleagris – the so-called Snakeshead fritillary. I only ever bought one small pot, and over the years it has been very generous with its seed and now we have drifts of them. In a good year, the flowers can rise out of the ground up to a foot and a half – with their distinctive cowlick of foliage above the downward facing chequered purple bell. I love picking one single flower and having it in a stem vase in the middle of the kitchen table, where it attracts comments relentlessly.
Celandines, pulmonarias, tiny bulbs, all make their appearance before their homes are bathed in shade, and before real spring settles in and the herbaceous perennials start to re-emerge, and because it has been months since anything really happened in the garden, us southern gardeners soak them up with great gratitude. After a few weeks, it will be “Hellebores? Pfft.” But for now, they and their other late winter/early spring buddies are centre stage before the main spring show begins.
I shall miss all of these sweet treasures (although I admit I am being a little mean by digging up and re-potting small clumps of them) when we sell, but I’m thrilled that they are all so at home now that someone else will be enchanted by them when winters cold days begin to give way to spring.