Down to earth – when spring drags its feet … force it.

(Originally published March 19, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

Forget what I said about savoring the last weeks of winter. I’m over it now and I know you are too. Spring can’t come fast enough. Sunshiny days in the 50s and 60s are just a wicked tease arriving as they still do between snow showers and polar vortices. We’re all ready for the tug of war to be over. Ready for the grass to green up and the daffodils to peak. Ready for spring to show in the trees the way it sounds in the birds’ songs. At least we can be pretty sure by now that winter’s muscles are weakening. And spring has the stamina gene. It will win out. Eventually.

Snowdrops are a very good sign that spring is on its way. They’ve been blooming for a few weeks already. Crocus is an even more gratifying sign and I did spot a few of the sweet little wild looking ones (Crocus tommasinianus) open on the last warm day. The honeybees were out that same day, working the witch hazel. And the skunk cabbage are up. It really can’t be long now. But any time the temperatures dip back down to (or below) freezing and snow shows up in the forecast, winter begins to feel interminable again. Until spring wins the tussle once and for all, I say we might as well force it.

I remember my mother displaying vases of bare sticks and twigs in our house when I was a kid. We’d chuckle and snort for weeks about how “pretty” her arrangements were (sarcasm runs in the family) until suddenly they actually were pretty—beautiful even—studded in spring flowers. Given my wonky sense of humor, my perennial disaffection for winter past February, and my vocation as a gardener, it’s no wonder that the practice of tricking tree and shrub branches into an early spring stuck with me. Also, it’s easy.

Simply cut a few budded branches, preferably those that needed pruning anyhow. Because pores close quickly, the stem ends will need a fresh cut, just like flowers do, right before putting them in a vase or bucket of warm—almost hot—water in a bright room. Woody stems need a little extra incentive to draw as much water as possible to the buds, so expose plenty of pith (the tissue under the bark) either by cutting on a sharp angle, or by using your pruners to split the stem an inch or two straight up the middle. Martha Stewart offers a third method involving a hammer. I’m all for finding ways to alleviate the maddening symptoms of spring fever, but the practice of stem smashing seems more likely to damage tissue than open its watery pathways. I could be wrong.

Magnolia stellata forced 3/9 -- 2 weeks to bloom
Magnolia stellata forced 3/9 — 2 weeks to bloom

Next, wait and watch. Change the water periodically and make fresh cuts whenever you feel especially impatient. Depending on the plant and the calendar, your vase of sticks should pop into flower in two weeks to a month or so.

Forsythia is the fastest to force and will be especially quick now that we’re only weeks away from its actual huzzah. It’s not my favorite spring blooming shrub out in the landscape mostly because it’s so common—if yellow is to be the official color of early spring, why not plant acres of fragrant lime-yellow winter hazel (Corylopsis glabrescens) and northeast native spice bush (Lindera benzoin) too? But my mom and I can tell you there’s almost nothing more hilariously cheerful in the living room than a giant vase of forsythia sticks in full bloom. Except maybe a vase of winter hazel, spice bush, crabapples, quince, or magnolia. So if spring can’t come fast enough for you, go ahead and force it.

Down to earth – plan for snowdrops …

… not snow, to herald spring

(Originally published March 20, 2013 in East Bay/South Coast Life)

snowdrops and crocus blooming on High St.

I don’t think of myself as a plant snob. I love plants, probably almost enough to qualify as a true geek, but I’m not very particular. Plants like sweet allysum and lavender make my heart pound as much as the most complicated orchid or hellebore. I tend to shy away from becoming overly attached to plants like primroses, dahlias, and hostas that have their own societies of enthusiasts who hold monthly meetings. I’m too much of a loner to be that much of a joiner. But I realized recently, after staring at close-ups in a magazine for much longer than normal, that I might be a latent galanthophile.

Snowdrops have never wowed me before. Their tiny white egg-shaped flowers dangle only inches off the ground surrounded by a clump of grassy green blades. They hang for ages from a nobby ovary before opening three segments—they’re called tepals when the petals are indistinguishable from the sepals that form the outer bud jacket—to reveal (if you’re willing to get down on your belly for a look) an inner layer of three, or a multiple of three, more segments. I appreciate their appearance so early in the year (some have been blooming around here since early February) but have always used them to justify finger tapping impatiently for gaudier early birds like crocus, Siberian squill, trout lily, and daffodils. I generally prefer colorful flowers to white ones.

But just because they’re white doesn’t necessarily mean they’re colorless. According to “additive” color theory, white is the blending of all colors of light. As a painting student the “subtractive” theory, wherein white is the absence of color and black is the blend, made much more sense to me. Even though every time I mixed all the colors on my palette I got a purplish-brown mess. Now that I’m a plant lover suddenly attracted to snowdrops, I’m inclined to resubscribe to the former theory.
Besides, snowdrops are more colorful than I ever gave them credit for. Even the plainest are fancifully decorated or just barely tinged, mostly on the inner tepals, with spring green. Which happens to be one of my very favorite colors especially in flowers. (Go figure.)

Out of the twenty or so species in the genus, Galanthus nivalis is the most commonly grown and variably tweaked by breeders and galanthophiles. It naturalizes freely by producing bulb offsets and by self-sowing, and what isn’t obvious from magazine centerfolds is that the flowers smell like honey on warm days. I’m suddenly desperate for the collectable cultivar ‘Magnet’, which dangles from extra long and gracefully curved stems and is well blotched with green on its inner segments. And there’s no way I can go through another March without the fully double (on the inside), ‘Flore Pleno’. But ‘Viridapice’ will probably end up being my favorite because even the outer segments blush green. For curiosity’s sake I might plant the yellow-tinged ‘Sandersii’ but in pictures they look anemic to me.

Giant snowdrop (G. elwesii) is also on my must-have list because its flowers, while not being at all colossal, are larger than the others and I should hope, more easily enjoyed from a distance. My plan, hatched this very minute, is to plant snowdrop drifts in a corner of my backyard border already home to budded hellebores and a few other later-spring bulbs. Not only do I like the idea of a “spring border” but I’ll be able to see them from my desk. That’s crucial whenever it’s blustery outside and cozy inside.

I wish I could buy the bulbs right now for instant gratification, but fall is the time to plant them, and summer the time for placing orders. In the meantime I’m stuck with pretty pictures. My consolation is that I know this craving too shall pass—probably just as soon as the snowdrops fade and the daffodils and trout lily bloom. Any day now.