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Spring blooms are early at Winterthur (pictured) and the UD Botanic Gardens.

Early risers

Spring blooms have sprung early this year thanks to mild winter


8:17 a.m., March 6, 2012--After a long, cold, snowy winter, March rewards us with blooms – winter aconite, flowering quince, spicebush and more. After this year’s short, mild and snowless winter, March still graces us with flowers – just not necessarily the ones we usually see now.

“This year’s mild winter threw things off,” says Sue Barton, ornamental horticulture specialist for UD Cooperative Extension. “I would estimate spring blooms are about two weeks early.”

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“Seeing snowdrops in bloom at the end of January was surprising, as was witch hazel and winter jasmine flowering in early February,” she says.

Barton is enjoying the earlier-than-usual flowers and notes that it doesn’t mean the spring bloom season will be any less dazzling. 

“The only thing that would make the season less than spectacular is if plants start to bloom early and then get hit by a cold spell that ruins the open flowers,” says Barton. “So far, all these really early bloomers we’ve seen, like snowdrops and witch hazel, can handle freezing weather. They are blooming earlier than normal but their usual bloom time is pretty early anyway – late February to early March – which subjects them to freezing weather routinely.”

Plants that can’t handle fluctuating temperatures include such mid-March and April bloomers as winter hazel and saucer magnolias. “It’s not uncommon for winter hazel and saucer magnolias to start blooming and then a late freeze ruins their blooms,” says Barton. “The winter hazel flowers turn brown on the shrub and the magnolia petals fall to the ground and become a brown, mushy mess.”

(The plant itself isn’t damaged by a late freeze, just that year’s blooms.)

At Winterthur, the early bloomers on the March Bank are celebrated every March with guided walks, lectures and other special events. Next Saturday, snowdrop expert David Culp will speak. But these bell-shaped white flowers were already out in full force last month, when Winterthur was on its winter schedule and closed to the public, reports Linda Eirhart, Winterthur’s assistant director of horticulture. Some snowdrops have finished flowering. 

Fortunately, Winterthur has several species of snowdrops, a few of which are late-blooming varieties, so you can still enjoy them on the March Bank. In particular, Galanthus nivalis is looking good, reports Eirhart.  Spring snowflake, Leucojum vernum, the larger cousin of the snowdrop, is abundant on the March Bank, too. And fans of yellow, take note. The butter-yellow winter aconites and brassier gold adonis began blooming a few weeks ago and are still going strong. 

Plus, there’s more color to be found throughout Winterthur’s 60 acres of garden. Hellebores, with their saucer-shaped flowers of white, pink, yellow, and maroon, are abundant on the Winter Hazel Walk and in front of the museum store. By mid-March, squill and glory-of-the-snow will add a pop of blue to the March Bank. 

At the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens (UDBG), witch hazels are now in bloom. They’re a favorite of Valann Budischak, who is volunteer and educator coordinator for the gardens. From a distance, witch hazel could be mistaken for forsythia but get closer and you’ll notice that the petals are fringed and look a bit like paper that’s been shredded. Witch hazel is just the beginning; soon there will be an explosion of blooms at the UDBG.

“In the next few weeks, we’ll begin to see some early blooming magnolias, winter hazel, winter-blooming daphne, camellia, leatherleaf mahonia, Cornelian cherry dogwood, winter honeysuckle and Abeliophyllum (aka white forsythia), “ says Budischak. 

The UD Botanic Gardens is open daily and Winterthur every day but Monday; make plans to visit one or both for a dose of spring color. Keep your eyes peeled for signs of spring during your daily commute, too. 

Barton helped to coordinate the Enhancing Delaware Highways project, which added native vegetation to Route 1, I-95 and other area highways. She loves the first blooms of the native serviceberries and redbuds alongside Route 1; by mid-March they sport white flowers and a gentle, red fuzz, respectively. “And, of course, nothing beats dogwoods at the edge of the woods,” notes Barton.

UD Botanic Gardens is located on the grounds of UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Newark. It’s open every day, from sunrise to sunset, for self-guided tours. Admission is free. Obtain a visitor parking pass online or use the metered parking near the UDairy Creamery. For more information, go to the UD Botanic Gardens website or call 831-0153.

Winterthur is located on Route 52, six miles northwest of Wilmington. It’s open Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last tour tickets are sold at 3:15 p.m. For more info, call 800-448-3883 or go to the Winterthur website.

Winterthur Snowdrops Lecture 

On March 10, snowdrop expert David Culp will explain how to grow snowdrops and share design ideas. Plus, tour the March Bank to enjoy snowdrops in bloom. 11 a.m., $20. To register, call 800-448-3883. 

Article by Margo McDonough

Photos by Danielle Quigley

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