Early Harbingers of Spring

by Henry Homeyer

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – Here in Cornish Flat, we recently had our first day that shouted “Spring is here!” After a night of cool rain, the sun came out and temperatures climbed into the 50s. Now all we need are spring flowers. Me? I solved that problem by potting up bulbs last November and storing them in my cool basement. They rested, grew roots, and now my windowsills are crammed with pots of daffodils and crocus, some blooming, others on the way. They will help to keep my spirits up when we get, as I know we will, day after day of gray drizzle before summer gets here.

Of the outdoor bulbs, the first to bloom are snowdrops. They push up through frozen earth on south-facing hillsides starting in late February. I imagine they can do this by the process of “thermogenesis”. That’s a process whereby a plant can produce a chemical reaction that produces heat. Few can do it, but those that do can get pollinated before anything else.

The poster child for thermogenesis is skunk cabbage. This is a plant I remember well from my boyhood home in Woodbridge, Conn. We had a small brook behind the house, and some wet areas along the banks in a woody area. Aside from being the first green plant to sprout, skunk cabbage had the ability to produce a noxious odor that was endlessly fascinating to young boys. I discovered that if I disturbed them, they produced a skunky odor that my sister did not like.

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is related to the common Jack-in-the-pulpit we all know and love. Like Jack, its flower is hidden inside a spathe, or outer leafy jacket. I bought a skunk cabbage plant at Garden in the Woods, a native plant sanctuary in Framingham, Mass., about 25 years ago.

What I did not know was that skunk cabbage is very slow growing, and does not spread at all quickly, at least this far north. Only in recent years has it bloomed, though every year the leaves have gotten bigger. Now I know when buying plants to buy at least three in order to make a statement in a reasonable amount of time. Skunk cabbage produces big green leaves and a barely noticeable flower.

courtesy photo
Leatherwood blossom, close-up.

Of the native woody plants, spring witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is the earliest that I know. In southern New England it can bloom in January, and here in New Hampshire it can bloom in March. I bought one last summer, and look forward to seeing the blossoms soon. I have several fall witch hazel that bloom in October and November. The blossoms vary from yellow to brownish red and are spidery in form. Small, but plentiful right near the stems.

Forsythia is a nice yellow-blossomed shrub originally from Asia and eastern Europe. Michael Dirr, my woody plant guru, describes it this way: “Rank-growing, deciduous shrub, differentially developing upright and arching canes which give it the appearance that the roots were stuck in an electric socket; always needs grooming, one of the most over-rated and over-used shrubs; will sucker (slowly) to form large colonies.” That from his “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants”, my favorite text on trees and shrubs.

His remarks notwithstanding, I grew up with it and like it. It is a burst of yellow at a time of the year: April, here, when not much else has bloomed or even leafed out. My gardening Grampy had a large patch of it that had suckered and created a bed 10 feet wide, 50 feet long and eight feet high or more. My sister Ruth Anne and I would crawl inside the patch of forsythia in the heat of summer for a cool respite and to hide from grownups.

The trick to managing forsythia is to prune it hard and often. Keep the tips of branches off the ground as they will root in if touching the soil. One can keep it as a nice vase-shaped shrub, and it really does not take much work to do so. Cold-hardy varieties that will bloom in Zone 4 include New Hampshire Gold, Vermont Sun and Meadowlark, among others. Ask at your local independent nursery.

Forsythia forces easily. Cut some stems with flower buds now and place them in a vase, and place it in a sunny window. I shall cut some today and get them blooming in a couple of weeks or less. The key is to recognize the flower buds: they are pointy and often appear in a cluster without stalks, right on the stems. Straight young stems that grew last year rarely have flower buds.

In contrast to the flamboyant forsythia is a nice native, leatherwood (Dirca palustris). This understated plant blooms just as it leafs out in March, April or early May, depending on where you are. It does best in full shade. Although Dirr’s book says it prefers a moist, dark soil, I have it in a dry location and it does just fine. The blossoms are pale to bright yellow, small, but plentiful. The bark is a handsome gray. But it is hard to find in a plant nursery. I bought one several years ago and have looked for others, but have not found another nicely shaped specimen. Look for it. Slow growing, it requires little or no care.

T.S. Elliot wrote in his poem, “The Wasteland,” that “April is the cruelest month”. I disagree, I think March is. Muddy roads and gray skies predominate. Flowers are scarce. We have April to look forward to, but if you pot up some daffodils next November for forcing, you can at least have some indoor blossoms now, in March.