There may be still snow well down on the hills and heavy frost in the morning, but spring has arrived. I know it because last week my reticulata iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ burst into bloom. When she flowers, winter is on its way out. But she’s late this year. I had been keeping a daily watch on her. Tiny specks of greenery poked through the ground in late July but a series of frosts stopped them in their tracks. When they eventually grew into fat, pregnant spears, the petals stayed tightly wrapped up for another week before they felt it was safe to open. It’s hard to describe this glorious little flower. A typical iris shape, in miniature, some writers say its colour is turquoise, but it’s both more restrained and more complicated than that. Think soft blue, overlaid with sulphur yellow and decorated with stripes of mid-blue and speckles of navy. So long as they don’t succumb to the dreaded ink disease, these little reticulatas are a welcome arrival each year. They like excellent drainage and increase rapidly in climates with cold winters and hot summers, provided they’re fed well during their growing season – diluted chicken manure is good – watered in winter and spring and protected from excessive summer rain. My clump is much too tightly packed; I must remember to divide it up when the foliage has died down.
Snow drops are another sign that winter is at an end. My snow drops started to appear about a month ago, as always braving cold temperatures. Now they are in full flight. But after my excursion yesterday to Cambrian they seem a meagre lot. Cambrian is about two hours away. It was originally a gold-mining village in a rugged part of the Maniototo. I spent all my childhood holidays close by in another small town where my forebears lived. This is countryside that feels like home.
Bob L de Berry, an aging hippie – his words, not mine – lives at Cambrian in an old miner’s cottage with colourful hens ranging freely where they will. He delights in growing trees and spring bulbs.
Over the last fifteen years he has created a magical snowdrop wood where thousands of these delicate white flowers bloom in July and August, with crocuses among them, flourishing beneath oak trees. Later in spring bluebells take over from the snowdrops, sprinkled with large patches of daffodils that are allowed to naturalise. Nearby there is a small stream running through a DoC reserve and here there are more clumps of snowdrops under the trees and among ferns that thrive in the damp conditions. It’s an unusual combination but seems so appropriate in New Zealand: plants that represent the native and the imported aspects of our land. Galanthus nivalis is the so-called English snowdrop (originally from the eastern Mediterranean), that sits about 15 centimetres high while G. nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’, which abound in Bob’s wood, is the most common double flowered variety.
The English fell in love with snowdrops in a big way following the Crimean War in the mid-19th century when soldiers brought bulbs back from the Mediterranean with a variety of slightly differing flowers. So popular were they that the Royal Horticultural Society held a conference on snowdrops in 1891. Nowadays they have winter rambles for galanthophiles! Snowdrops like cool, lightly shaded areas with lots of humus and constant moisture but good drainage. Division every few years, after flowering, keeps them vigorous and blooming well.
Winter aconites, traditionally a woodland inhabitant, have to qualify as equally brave. Members of the buttercup family, or Ranunculaceae, they’re not very common in New Zealand, but they have been grown in domestic gardens for hundreds of years, in spite of their reputation for being dangerously poisonous. John Gerard in his Herball or Historie of Plantes, published in 1597, warns that an arrow dipped in the juice of an aconite will kill man or beast within half an hour. I have a few clumps of the ground-hugging, buttery yellow flowers, cupped in frilly green collars and growing beneath hydrangea bushes. They don’t spread as quickly as I’d like – but then which plants do? The most common species is Eranthis hyemalis and it’s native to several southern and central European countries. Large clumps can be divided and they need to be placed where larger, more rambunctious plants won’t overwhelm them.
The minute rock cyclamen or Cyclamen coum is another favourite. It has been in full flower for more than a month. They do well planted on the roots of deciduous trees but mine are in a large tub, and in a year or two may take over the whole surface. Their leaves are round, slightly heart-shaped, often silvery. The flowers are daintier and the leaves smaller and less decorated than those of Cyclamen hederifolium which flowers in autumn after a shower of rain. Rock cyclamen flowers are minuscule but perfect in every detail, standing on stems about 4cm tall, varying in colour from white through pale pink to deeper pink.
When all these flowers are blooming at the same time, spring has definitely arrived.