This winter has been bad for everyone.

For people who hate winter, we’ve had above-average snow and a string of sub-zero days in December and January that kept people inside and boosted heating bills.

For people who love winter, that above-average snowfall has been followed by above-average temperatures coupled with rain, fog or combination of both that melted everything. That limited skiing, skating and snowshoeing, and left us looking at ugly brown lawns covered with leaves blown in from the yards of neighbors who didn’t rake last fall.

To keep me from falling into a deep depression, I’ve been thinking about the lecture on early-blooming plants that Will Bridges, a horticulturist at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, gave at last spring’s Maine Flower Show in Portland. (Just thinking of the Flower Show later this month also boosts my spirits.) “Snowdrops are the first thing that pops up,” Bridges said on a cool but muddy day last March. “It’s a sign that there is something going on out there.”

Snowdrops are small, so they have to be planted in a mass, with thousands of bulbs, to make a big impression. In addition, because they come up before people spend much time outdoors, they should be planted along walkways or other places you will see them frequently. Many people naturalize them in their lawns. They multiply and hybridize themselves, so you can get some surprises.

If you are buying snowdrop bulbs, which are about the size of a pea, you plant them as soon as you get them in the fall. If a friend digs some up in the spring and gives them to you, plant them immediately.


Crocuses come in a little after snowdrops, but they should be treated about the same. They are bulbs, but larger than snowdrops. Although the blooms are larger, they also should be planted in mass, near walkways where people will see them.

“Squirrels and chipmunks will ravage them,” Bridges said. “And they will rebury them.”

What that means is that they will come up in different spots every year since small animals seem to rebury the bulbs, not eat them.

After the snowdrops and crocuses, Bridges mentioned daffodils and hyacinths, but I don’t put them in the same class. By the time they come up I’m in the vegetable garden planting peas, lettuce and other early crops. They add to the beauty of the property and are good cut flowers, but they don’t keep the spirits up during the depths of mud season the way the true early bloomers do.

Some woodies help push spring in.

The first is witch hazel, “which will blossom when the snow is still on the ground,” Bridges said. “If it’s cold, the blossoms will curl right up, but when it warms up they’ll be in full bloom again.”


People in Portland can see the “Arnold Promise” hybrid at Post Office Park, and there is another “Arnold Promise” at the Cliff Walk entrance at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth. That one is already in blossom.

“Arnold Promise” was developed at Arnold Arboretum in Boston, and is a hybrid of a Japanese and a Chinese witch hazel, which has the botanical name Hamamelis.

Local nurseries also sell native, spring blooming witch hazels that are neither as early nor as showy as “Arnold Promise,” but they do bloom before people spend much time outside.

Another shrub for early bloom is cornus mas, or the cornelian cherry, which has bright yellow blossoms appearing after witch hazel but before forsythia. Edible berries appear in September, and they are attractive, but birds usually get them before people can get to them.

A lot of the earliest herbaceous perennials are native spring ephemerals.

Dutchman’s breeches, Dicentra cucullaria, is related to the bleeding heart that you see everywhere later in the summer. The plant gets its name because the white inch-long blossom looks like an upside-down pair of baggy pants.


“The blossom dies down quickly, but they are awfully cute when they are there,” Bridges said.

The marsh marigold, Caltha palustris (which isn’t even distantly related to marigolds, but is instead a member of the buttercup family) grow in damp areas next to ponds and streams. They are bright, yellow and prolific.

Bridges said a few marsh marigolds were planted around a pond at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens about 10 years ago, and now surround the pond.

“If don’t get them before they go to seed, they spread,” he said.

One of the most popular early-spring bloomers is the hellebore, also called lenten rose even though it has no relationship to roses except that they are beautiful flowers.

“They have a nice early blossom,” Bridges said, “and there are scads of them around, from the deepest purply red to yellows, whites and pinks.”


Although they bloom very early, the foliage looks good all through the growing year and some varieties bloom later.

While transforming last year’s notes from Will Bridges’ talk into this year’s column, it struck me that he did not mention pulmonaria – my personal favorite early-blooming perennial. I have noticed them on early visits to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, so he probably forgot – or he doesn’t love them as much as I do.

With the awful common name of lungwort, pulmonaria has pink to purple blossoms intermixed with variegated green and white foliage. After the blossoms have passed, the plants look like tiny hostas, and in my own garden, my wife and I often intermix the two plants. Pulmonaria is a plant that wanders. We planted it in front of a rough stone wall in one part of a garden, and now it grows on both sides of the wall.

Those are the best of the early bloomers Bridges mentioned – plus one suggestion from me. Watch for them in your walks around town and think of which you might plant to give you early spring hope next year.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at at: [email protected]

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