What Will Be the First Flower of Spring?

Every spring, as soon as the snow melts, the bulbs we planted the previous autumn race to be the first to bloom and decorate our landscaping. It’s a tight race, as many bulbs bloom quickly in spring, often while there’s snow in the background. But in general, the winner is either the snowdrop or the winter aconite. (No, despite its great precocity, the crocus inevitably comes in third place.) If you want to be the first person on your street to have flowers in their flower beds, try one of these two bulbs and you’re sure to win the race.

The Snowdrop

Photo: Pixabay

The better known of the two bulbs, the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) lives up to its common name: it often blooms when there’s still snow all around it. It’s a small, light-brown bulb with a classic shape, flattened at the base and pointed at the top, which produces three linear leaves per bulb, followed by a slender, arching flower stalk bearing a small, hanging flower. The flower is white with three sepals. The true petals, forming a short crown inside the flower, are white with green markings, but can only be clearly distinguished by lifting the flower. The flowers are fragrant… but you almost have to put your nose in them to notice.

In our climate, the snowdrop persists well from year to year, but is not very inclined to multiply. If you plant a bunch of bulbs (at least 15 X 25 bulbs for a good effect), they’ll stay in their place for 30 years or more, at least as long as you don’t divide them.

In addition to the single-flowered snowdrop, there’s also a double-flowered snowdrop, but as the flower hangs upside down anyway, there’s not much difference in appearance between the two in the garden; besides, the double-flowered variety is much more expensive.

Winter Aconite

Photo: Kora27 

The winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), also known as helleborine or winter monkshood, is much less well known, but perhaps even more striking, as its cup-shaped yellow flowers reminiscent of buttercups stand out more against a background of white snow. It’s a tiny plant, only 6 to 8 cm high, 3 inches (the foliage rises to 10 or 12 cm, 4-5 inches, after flowering), but the single flower is particularly large in relation to the bulb and therefore highly visible. It is surrounded by a green collar made up of two leaves that meet at the base.

The winter aconite “bulb” is actually a tuber: small, black and dried out, it doesn’t even look alive. Soak it in water for 24 hours before planting and it will regain its shape. Impossible, however, to determine which side of this misshapen tuber should go up: plant it in any position and it will flower anyway.

Photo: Danny S.

In our climate, the winter aconite resprouts spontaneously and, over time, forms a beautiful colony. However, for the most immediate effect, always plant at least 15 to 25 tubers, remembering that the bulb is really very small.

The winter aconite cheats a little in its race to be the first flower of spring: its tuber gives off heat and melts the snow surrounding it. If you hate interminable winters, you’ll love this little bulb for ridding your yard of snow!

Two Bulbs for Early Planting

While there’s no rush to plant tulip bulbs (you can put them in the ground until November), this isn’t the case for snowdrops and winter aconite. The snowdrop prefers an early planting, in September, but the winter aconite requires it. A word of warning to those of you who, like me, tend to delay planting bulbs: my early days with the winter aconite were disastrous. Barely a few bulbs made it through the winter from my late-October plantings. When I started planting them in mid-September, shortly after their arrival in the store, however, they were all growing.

Larry Hodgson published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings accessible to the public. This text was originally published in Le Soleil on September 14, 2003.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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