And then—finally—there was one


    Snowdrop solo

    When we bought our house twenty-three years ago, what I knew about gardening would not have filled a seed packet. I did know early spring flowers were an antidote for winter blahs, so I planted a big sack of snowdrops under the sugar maple. The blooms would be visible from the house, from the driveway, on every walk to the mailbox. I tucked dozens of bulbs the requisite number of inches below the grass. And then, chipmunks dug up every single one.
    The genus is Galanthus: milk-flowered. Not native, but exquisite: dainty white blossoms nodding on arched necks. Their timing is exquisite, too, because they bloom in late winter—the species name for the common snowdrop, nivalis, means snowy. And, ideally, they reappear year after year.

    But they did not appear for me. No snowdrops bloomed the next spring, nor the next, nor ever.

    Until now. Until today, when one white flower suddenly resurrected itself at the foot of the tree. My guess is that a surfeited chipmunk must have let fall a fragment too small even for a six-inch long rodent to fool with. And every year, that one crumb must have grown. It grew, and grew. Until it grew up.

    Ladies and gentlemen, this right here is a flower twenty-three years in the making, and if a chipmunk so much as LOOKS at it, I will invite my friend to bring her pellet gun and come sit a spell on the porch. Not that I really want a drift of snowdrops in the yard anymore. I’m no longer interested in exotic bulbs. Tree buds, yard weeds, birds, anthills, and other native habitat clues tell me spring is coming. I don’t need a European bloom as a signal.

    But this particular bloom spent the last twenty-three years in furious restoration work. Talk about perennial. Hidden beneath our footsteps and the footsteps of two kids birthed in the interim—one already nearly done with college—this thing impossibly, inexorably repaired itself. In secret, from nibbled speck to final form, it rebuilt to specification and to full reproductive trim. What a boring yet amazing time-lapse documentary this would make. Should copyright law permit, it could include the Fellowship of the Ring film clip of Gandalf explaining to Frodo in the best understatement ever: “I was . . . delayed.”

    My snowdrop was delayed, but not by an evil wizard. By me. I put it there, I let it become lunch. I feel I owe it something. The least I can do is keep an eye on it now.

    I hope violence will not be necessary. I hope so much time has elapsed since local chipmunks tasted snowdrops that they will not recognize the new flower as food. Eastern chipmunks reach sexual maturity after one year, which means the current family underneath my porch could be the great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandchipmunks of the original snowdrop snackers.

    Perhaps there arose a generation who knew not snowdrops. And perhaps this generation will leave my single snowdrop the hell alone.


    1. Joanna,
      Beautifully written.

      This morning, here in Maryland, where it might snow Friday, I knew Spring was coming. The red-winged blackbirds, 50 feet up, sing so loudly they drown out the sound of the traffic. But, it was an eastern black swallowtail that flew up from the leaf litter that had me looking down this morning.

      I should not forget that pondering what’s beneath my feet is vital all year.

      “A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for several years before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance. To take its one and only chance to grow.

      A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the
      three-hundred year-old oak tree that towers over it. Neither the seed nor the old oak is growing, they are both just waiting. Their waiting differs, however, in that the seed is waiting to flourish while the tree is only waiting to die. When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could.

      You probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sits between one hundred and one thousand seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die. All this death hardly matters because the single elm tree towering over you produces at least a quarter of a million new seeds every single year. When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are no less than three million more trees waiting in the soil, fervently wishing to be.”

      _________From “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren. Copyright 2016 by Hope Jahren.
      Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf

      • Thank you, Marcia. And thanks for the heads-up about the book. I just put my name on the waiting list at the library.

    2. I love this. On my 2 properties I have found volunteer daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinths, iris, and snowdrops in various places, none of which I planted. It’s like Christmas every time a new one pops up. So Joanna, you may have left a legacy!

      • Thanks, Anne! Don’t you love wondering about those mystery bulbs: who planted them and when? I recently tried to find out how long daffodils could possibly live, and no one seems to know for sure. One source said, “possibly forever.” I hope my Snowdrop ages so well!

        • Daffodils will certainly last for decades, or, at least, their progeny will. There are whole hillsides covered with them in my area (mountains of NC); they’re a good indicator where a house used to be. They self seed and spread in a marvelous fashion

    3. My yard is an old one — the house dates back to 1810 or so — but it sadly lacked early plants, except for a couple of sad lilacs, when I first moved in. But the first early spring there, a big loose drift (about 4 by 8 yards) of Crocus thomasiniana showed up in March, and then in April, one single blue scilla in the middle of the scruffy lawn. It still pops up now, 7 years later, just the one, just as welcome.

    4. Just fyi Gakanthus is best transplanted fresh right after they bloom. Gey them from a neighbor. It is not uncommon at all for fall planted, purchased bulbs to fail to grow. So find a patch this spring and ask the person if you can have some. I did this years ago and they have spread like crazy.

    5. I have an ace team of chipmunks and squirrels living in my garden. If one should expire, there’s a multitude waiting to move in from the woods. Crocus and tulips haven’t a chance here, but (knock on wood) my snowdrops remain uneaten.

    6. For the past three years, begonias have popped up in a few different areas of my yard. I was surprised to see them, since I have never kept any and have been in my home 7 years. None of the neighbors grow begonias, so my best guess is the previous owner enjoye some begonias at some point. I let them be wherever they pop up, figuring they know what they like best. So far that has been behind the AC unit, next to the garbage cans, and in between a few azaleas. Sometimes the best flowers are the unexpected.

    7. I would have given up on those bulbs for dead long, long ago. Amazing that it came back 23 years later. Good thing chipmunks are cute. Scallawags. Also! I’d never heard of snowdrops before, so I’ll have to go looking for them. Pretty, pretty.


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