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SPRING IS HERE! SPRING IS HERE!

Early bloomers brighten the garden

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When the snowdrops and hellebore started blooming last weekend in my front garden, I knew spring had finally arrived. Snowdrops are some of the earliest spring bulbs to appear. They are beloved more for their early flowering than for their color. The half-inch to inch-long flowers occur singly and nod downward like tiny, teardrop-shaped lanterns when closed up at night. Dangling from slender stems above narrow leaves, the blooms are comprised of three white, floppy petals that surround a little white trumpet or cup of shorter petals on the inside. The inside "trumpet" makes these flowers special because they are intricately marked in pea to lime green, a color you don't expect to see inside a white flower.

As you might imagine by their name, these delicate early bloomers are hardy enough to pop right through snow. Their flower color and hardiness is what gave them their most perfect common name of snowdrops. But even their scientific name, Galanthus nivalis, speaks of their color and time of bloom. Galanthus (the genus name) comes from the Greek meaning "milk flower" while nivalis (the species name) means "snow" or "snowy". Snowdrops are native to the woodlands, shaded ravines and bottomlands from Central Europe to Turkey.

These diminutive bulbs only reach a height of 3 to 6 inches, making them a must for even the smallest of gardens. Snowdrops are easy to grow in full sun or partial shade.

They prefer rich, well-drained soils, but can tolerate most soils as long as they receive adequate moisture throughout the year. Snowdrops can be planted in beds or borders but often are used in rock gardens or naturalized in grassy areas. One recommended cultivar (cultivated variety) is Lady Elphinstone, a variety with gray-green leaves and double flowers that have yellow rather than green markings. (Double flowers have more petals than normal, often twice as many petals.) Flore Pleno also has double flowers but with frilly centers. Sam Arnott, another cultivar, has large, honey-scented blooms with an inverted V-shaped green mark on the edge of each inner petal.

Hellebore, another early bloomer, is also called Lenten Rose or Christmas Rose depending on the variety and time of year that it flowers. These wonderful harbingers of spring have nodding or upright open saucerlike blooms that are usually made up of five to six thick petals. A few double-flowered varieties exist but they are sometimes difficult to find locally. The most common flower colors range from white to green and pink to deep, dusky burgundy. A yellow flowering variety is also available. Often the 2 to 3-inch scentless blooms are beautifully speckled or streaked inside, making them a delight to tip upward for viewing face to face.

Multiple leaflets make up a hellebore leaf. The leaflets are glossy, leathery, serrated and fan out in all directions from a central stem. The leaves alone are an interesting addition to the garden. Choose a shady or semi-shady area for your plants. Hellebores prefer rich, well-drained soils, but will tolerate all sorts of soils as long as they receive adequate moisture. Plant them under shrubs or trees or as foundation plantings in beds on the east or north side of the house.

These darlings of spring are native to northeast Greece, European Turkey and eastward along the Black Sea coast to the southern Caucasus Mountains in what was previously Soviet Georgia. Hellebores are multi-stemmed, long-lived, herbaceous plants that can reach a height of 18 to 24 inches. (Herbaceous means non-woody.) The leaves of these sturdy cold weather lovers can stay green year-round, except during exceptionally cold winters. Like the tiny snowdrops, hellebores are hardy enough to bloom even under a covering of snow and they can stay in flower for weeks.

Although pretty, these plants have an interesting history of strange usage. Hellebore was supposedly sacred to Pluto and Hecate, the deities of the underworld. For this reason, it was used by witches to cast spells and charms. On the medical front, the root was used in the past to treat epilepsy, depression and insanity, but I wouldn't advise any self-medication; hellebore is poisonous. Eating any part of the plant can cause vomiting and convulsions that could lead to death. Up until the 18th century, it was given to people to cure intestinal worms, which is really quite amazing since it was said that your chances were 50:50 as to whether you'd kill just the worms or yourself. The poison they contain makes hellebores rabbit and deer resistant. A real plus for those living near the foothills. However, hellebore is probably not a good choice for yards harboring curious puppies or small children.

Take a walk around your yard today and see what plants are popping up to herald an early spring for you. Seeing them will put a smile on your face. Guaranteed.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension Services in Ada County. Send your gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail: sbell@uidaho.edu.

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