My Wake-Up Call

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Spring beauties, Claytonia virginica, in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.

I’ve got a favorite spring-flowering plant, and I bet you have one, too. But I can’t fully warm up to spring, or any flowering favorites, until I’ve shaken winter’s lingering, gray dreariness.

I piddled through the late winter calendar this year with hellebores, witch hazels, snowdrops and crocus. I love these teasers, but since late autumn, I have been a lazy winter gardener. I’m working on a slow-to-rise groundhog’s schedule this spring.

By mid-March our garden was in tatters—a jumble of brittle phlox stems and chickweed. I walked around it, thinking, glancing at a few early blooms and putting off chores. I can’t trust fickle March until I’ve set the clock forward an hour for daylight savings.

My mother and I differed on daylight savings. She complained that moving the clock forward was the worst night of the year. One hour’s sleep was stolen, but there was no way mom was going to miss the 8:00 a.m. Sunday communion.

I know daylight savings is arbitrary time travel, but it is also my wake-up call—an extra, blessed hour of evening daylight. A warmer, sunnier day of salvation, near the spring solstice, brings me to my senses faster than smelling salts.

For years, I’ve been rescued by a trusted, lucky charm that steadies my nerves. I am unchained when spring beauties come into bloom. Spring begins barreling along with tornado warnings and blue skies.

Spring forward!

The few steadfast admirers of spring beauties grow weary of arguing in favor of an underappreciated eastern North American wildflower. Maybe we could upgrade its standing if we promoted the rarely used, cheerful common name: good-morning-spring.

Spring beauties with Glory of Snow, Chiondoxa lucilliae.

I make a pilgrimage each year (one of many) to Louisville’s beautiful Cave Hill Cemetery where spring beauties have naturalized for a hundred years or more. For several weeks, I’ve been eyeing a small patch of spring beauties, Claytonia virginica, that are happy with other little bulbs—Puschkinia scilliodes var. libanotica and Chiondoxa luciliae.

Elsewhere last weekend, all over the cemetery, there were hundreds of thousands of spring beauties in bloom, along with flowering cherries, forsythia and daffodils. The Star magnolias are in full flower. The pristine-white blooms narrowly avoided the usual hard freeze. Freeze-burned blooms look like charred parchment. I love spring-flowering magnolias and will bet against the odds of frost every year.

Spring beauties in Salvisa, KY

Several years ago, I found two-dozen spring beauties growing in the shade of 45-year-old white pines on the farm in Salvisa. The little plants are seeding around. Now, I’ve got a hundred. I only need another hundred years to begin competing with the bounty of spring beauties that Cave Hill Cemetery has.

Jared Barnes, the phenomenally gifted and engaging Assistant Professor of Horticulture, at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, described the blooms, on his excellent blog, as dime-sized with “white-flowering and dark-pink-flowering plants in the same area with color morphs along that gradient.” (Note to Jared: Can we start a spring beauties support group?) Check out Jared’s blog post on spring beauties from March 16th.

Deadnettles, Lamium purpureum.

Okay, the shy spring ephemeral may not have the grace of bloodroots or the recognition of trilliums, but I don’t care. Have I mentioned versatility? Author and botanist Pat Haragan mentions an edible tidbit in Olmsted Parks of Louisville: A Botanical field Guide. The little corms can be “boiled in salted water and taste like chestnuts.” I thought the flavor leaned more toward buttered turnips. Boil the corms for 2 minutes, slice in half and throw them in a salad with chickweed and deadnettle or henbit flowers. I’m still building up stock on my spring beauties, but I’ve got all the chickweed leaves and deadnettle flowers you’ll need. Beauty and flavor are in the eye of the spring beholder.

Field of deadnettles in Salvisa, KY.

What is your favorite spring-flowering plant that welcomes the trustworthy arrival of spring for you?

24 COMMENTS

  1. I love Spring Beauties, too! A lovely wildflower that happily inhabits neglected lawns. My other favorite spring wake-up call is the snow crocuses with which I have sprinkled my front lawn.

  2. Winter aconites here in western NY! They start blooming even before the snowdrops, and the patch I have by my front door cheers me up like nothing else. When they start appearing, I know we’re on the upswing!

  3. My favourite spring flower is Jeffersonia diphylla. It may be commonplace farther south but in Quebec it is only marginally hardy. I love its pure white blossoms, its ephemeral nature and the many faces it shows afterwards, as it ages. I wrote about Jeffersonia in my blog this week, showing some (no false modesty here!) fabulous photos of the plant. Take a look, at http://www.siteandinsight.com

    • I love twin leaf. I grew a small patch in a shady spot that soon became partly sunny when an ash tree was taken by emerald ash borer. The Jeffersonia proved surprisingly tough in morning sun.

  4. Blooming plum tree. When the plum blooms, it’s spring. No more winter. If it freezes after that, it’s a spring frost.

  5. Carolyn, the plum blossoms of Prunus mume are wonderful. I’ve killed one or two in Kentucky. I suspect this one might not be fully hardy. The early spring blossoms might be worth a 3rd try.

  6. My favorites have changed over the year and over spring. Trailing arbutus, hepatica, rue anemone, spring beauty that shows signs of life in December in some years and that have been planted in my lawn, Dutchman’s britches, so delicate, my thousand bloodroot giving bloom for a month, Virginia bluebellsthat fill a bank with bloom and of course trillium when massed as they are ib the wild.

    • I keep hold of my favorites. I’m really fond of an early flowering daffodil called ‘Little Beauty’ that is a good clumper and naturalizer, but now seems hard-to-find. And the low-growing, evergreen sweet box, Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis, has inconspicuous, deliciously fragrant blooms.

  7. On the other side of the pond over here in the UK – Manchester to be precise – I enjoy Cyclamen coum due to their ease at growing…they are only small but definitely DO stand out with their white and pink flowers, Allen.

  8. Pulsatilla patens is a wonderful native that almost always has bees on and around it. There is a lot of it in Elk Meadow (Colorado open space). And it blooms early (relatively speaking).

  9. I may have seen Pulsatilla patens in the Colorado Rockies in early July. Is that possible, Cherie? I love pulsatillas but mine are a scattered and colorful array of Pulsatilla vulgaris. They’ll be in bloom in a few weeks.

  10. A hard question? I too note spring beauty and the toothworts. I used have my spot on my morning walk to check on yellow trout lily. Since moving I have to drive there, but as one of those special places most of the year it’s worth it and on the way to work so no extra fuel required. In the past I always thought all white flowering trees in bloom now were Amelanchier arborea serviceberry which is a favorite early woody as is Spicebush (I am always amazed at how many there are in the woods that later in the season I will lose track of). Now callery pear dominates the white flowered spring woods edge. The Paw Paws are just maybe 1/4″ today. Flowering mosses are now in west Kentucky replacing the beautiful yellow of the winter moss ground cover in the woods. I can’t neglect bloodroot, sweeeeet! Oh, and I am over thinking the violas are weeds; I love them. Ok, I can’t answer the question, this time of year at my favorite spots brings much joy!

  11. Win, I was driving home this afternoon, up a hill, not far from Cherokee Park, and saw a hillside full of toothworts I’ve driven past every early April for 25 years, and not seen them before. It became a new “favorite spot.” Thanks for sharing yours.

  12. From childhood I have admired Spring Beauty. I’d love to get them into my weed-filled lawn, but they seem very hard to acquire. Perhaps they don’t hold well shipped at tubers? I acquired seed once, but had no luck with germination. Thoughts, friends?

  13. Chris, I don’t know why the corms couldn’t be shipped dormant in the fall, but I’m not sure why nurseries would want to bother. They’re tiny (a third to a half the size of a crocus) and would be hard and expensive to cultivate commercially. Seeds, I suspect, have a short shelf life. Come on down to Kentucky next year in early April and we can find a spot, and get permission, to dig a handful (that’s all you would need) to get you started. And then, if they’re happy they will self sow to your heart’s content.

  14. Usually it’s the Puschkinias and Scilla for me, Allen, but this year, tonight, my first real excitement came from a 3-year-old Salix caprea ‘Curly Locks’ a French pussy willow. It is just coming into bloom, 6 feet tall and wide, and was covered in a swarm of bees. I’ve never seen bees here before the lilacs bloom, but I guess I now need to grow more Pussy Willows if only for the bees.

  15. In New Bern, NC, ipheions have naturalized and announce that Spring Is Here. This is about the time that the red maples flower and then show their bright red samaras, and the henbit turns the fields purple. And random clumps of squirrel-planted daffodils bloom on the side of the roads.

  16. Thank you for a springtime visit to Cave Hill and Cherokee Park. I was a Highlander once upon a time and miss those early spring bloom awakenings in Kentucky. At my adopted home in mid coast Maine, it’s shads I’m waiting for and skunk cabbage but the biggest thrill is a visit to our local collage when there is a courtyard protected redbud in full bloom!

    • Ann, I’m partial to white-blooming shadbushes, also. I planted some seed-grown trees last year, partly to see if I could get some berries in a few years. I’m reforesting a little section of the Salvisa farm (near Harrodsburg) and I’ve sprinkled shad bushes and red buds among a mix of oaks. My daughter introduced me to flavorful red bud blooms last year. They look good in a salad.

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