In the Garden:
Snowdrops poke through oak leaf mulch in early January in Charles Cresson's Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, garden.
Snowdrops and other Winter Bloomers
Bright white snowdrops are the first flowering bulbs to poke through the soil's crust as winter slowly gives way to spring. Snowdrops (Galanthus) in several sizes and many cultivars are the January mainstay in Hedgleigh Spring, Charles Cresson's garden in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
"The view outside my kitchen window -- right now the earliest snowdrops are in bloom," Charles says. "Among winter-flowering bulbs, the snowdrop is the single most important. Because they're the hardiest to bloom in midwinter. They take a lot of cold, even when blooming. If you have different varieties, you can have blooms from fall into spring." They push up leaves, then pop their bell-shaped flowers according to the weather.
Charles knows his bulbs, and his gardens. An author, garden designer, and educator, Charles teaches a course on hardy spring- and fall-flowering bulbs for Longwood Gardens' horticultural certificate program. He also has a winter garden to die for -- ground-hugging gingers, perennial hellebores, leatherleaf Mahonia bealei, camellias, hardy palms. And snowdrops -- clusters and clusters of drooping snowdrops -- easily seen and greatly appreciated.
His early favorite is the giant snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii), "an interesting species because it's possible to get different clones of elwesii that will flower at different times during the winter," he explains.
Later on, bright yellow buttercup winter aconites (Eranthis) and deep lavender "tommies" (Crocus tommasinianus) flower with the common (and smaller) snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), starting in late February and going into March.
"You can have many things that bloom at this time of year," says Charles. "Of late, that's become easier. If you accept this global warming, now's the time to take advantage," he continues. "A few years ago, things didn't flower so much because winter was colder and held them off until March."
Some flowering shrubs are performing better in recent mild winters, such as fragrant wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), Japanese flowering apricot, and witch hazel. Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) is also opportunistic, blooming when it warms up and then again later.
Witch hazel is the quintessential winter-flowering shrub, in Charles' opinion. "There are lots of varieties. They are in vogue, popular, fragrant. Their flowers open when it gets warm, then curl back up again in cold. They can go on like that for six weeks." Chinese and Japanese hybrids show color starting in January and February. 'Princeton Gold' is one of the best deep yellows. Orange 'Jelena' and red 'Diane' are also beautiful and blight resistant.
Charles designs his winter beds with early flowering bulbs, flowering shrubs, and hellebores in different, highly visible areas. For example, he suggests planting them in a spot that's easy to enjoy from a window you look out of during winter, at entrances, and along paths you frequent. Practically speaking, plant on the warmer side of the house -- on the west or southwest where the snow melts faster. Designwise, he places large evergreens like holly and mahonia in the background, then moves forward with deciduous flowering shrubs like witch hazel.
"Winter aconite and snowdrops are perfect companions underneath witch hazel because they like deciduous shade," says Charles. Why not give these plants a try in your own garden.
Care to share your gardening thoughts, insights, triumphs, or disappointments with your fellow gardening enthusiasts? Join the lively discussions on our FaceBook page and receive free daily tips!