Green Thumbs Up: Harbingers of spring

Suzanne Mahler

Just when winter-weary gardeners were about to dust off their gardening tools and begin spring-cleaning their landscapes, Old Man Winter donned his lion’s costume and came roaring back to take center stage.

As snow, sleet, and freezing rain pelt against my windowpanes here in Massachusetts, I reflect back to a few days ago, when I was happily working outdoors in my gardens.

Mild temperatures and gentle rain had erased nearly all traces of winter snows that had persisted for weeks on end, the crusty snow cover lingering only in the shadiest corners of my landscape. I spent several hours clipping and raking leaves and debris from a large island bed.

Dandelion sprouts and large green patches of chickweed already covered with tiny white flower buds were easily extricated from the soft, moist earth. Beneath the leaf litter, the telltale tips of spring-flowering bulbs could be seen poking their noses through the soil, while the leaf buds of lilacs and several other trees and shrubs were beginning to swell.

Along my back walkway, more than a dozen satiny white, saucer-shaped blooms of a Christmas rose (helleborus "Jacob") had magically appeared as the snow retreated. This remarkable evergreen perennial started blooming last November, and although some of the fleshy rose-tinted stems were bent, new buds were continuing to emerge and unfurl, perhaps cryogenically preserved by the persistent snow cover.

The shade-loving family of hellebores provides some of our earliest spring blooms, with long-lasting flowers and leathery evergreen foliage. New cultivars have expanded the range of flower colors and forms to include varying shades of yellow, pink, purple and white, often highlighted by contrasting blotches and freckles in both single and double forms.

My most consistent harbinger of spring is witch hazel, hamamelis "Arnold Promise," its vibrant yellow-fringed blossoms nearly always in bloom by mid- to late February.

Planted many seasons ago as a small, bare-root, mail-order sapling, this vase-shaped shrub has gradually matured into a handsome 15-foot tree. From my window, the tree resembles a frilly, lemon chiffon cloud that provides a lovely addition to a shady corner alongside my water garden against a backdrop of deep evergreen foliage provided by a cedar tree.

There are several desirable cultivars of witch hazels (hamamelis spp.) currently available, each offering unusual clusters of delicate ribbon-like flowers for six to eight weeks in February, March and April, when little else is in bloom. The deep, coppery-red flowers of hamamelis "Diane" are a bold contrast to the lemon yellow blossoms of "Arnold Promise" that was developed at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Mass. "Pallida," a Cary Award winner, displays especially large, sulfur-yellow blooms.

Cold weather causes the spidery petals to close tightly, but when temperatures are moderate, the clusters unfurl once again, releasing a delightful fragrance. Tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions, ideal culture includes provision of a moisture-retentive but well-drained soil in an area of full sun to half shade. In addition to the early, persistent, fragrant blossoms, these handsome shrubs display attractive leaves during the growing season, which culminate in a dazzling fall display of multi-colored autumn foliage.

Unfortunately, witch hazels are not commonly grown, most likely because their unique blossoms have departed by the time most gardeners make their first spring pilgrimages to their local nurseries. It should be noted that h. Virginiana, which is likely to be found growing in moist woodlands or streamside, is a fast-growing shrub with tiny yellow flowers that appear in autumn, unlike those of the varieties derived from spring-blooming Asian species.

With snowflakes swirling, driven by gusty breezes, I must temporarily trade my rake and hedge shears for my snow shovel yet again. I cling to these springtime images while the deepening drifts shroud the landscape in a new protective insulation blanket of fluffy white crystals.

Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.