A colourful banquet

After several months of the cold and prolonged darkness of winter it’s an eagerly anticipated delight to see the first sparkling flowers of the year emerge.  Amongst the highlights are surely twinkling snowdrops, glossy winter aconites and vivid crocus.


For many people the first glimpse of snowdrops is a sure sign that spring is coming. The dazzling white flowers are a boon for insects and this is a plant that requires absolutely no maintenance.  There was a misconception at one time that snowdrops didn’t produce seeds, but they can if there are pollinators about and for any emerging queen bumblebee snowdrops could be a life-saver. Bumblebee Conservation Trust point out that in some areas the buff-tailed bumblebee is active in winter and that snowdrops can be a great source beyond the likes of Mahonia and winter-flowering heather.


Snowdrop have another endearing quality, they frequently evolve into patches or drifts. As you might expect given their eagerly anticipated early flowering they have an interesting social history. Once strongly associated with Candlemass, which falls 40 days after Christmas, they had a less celebrated association with churches as they were often planted around graveyards which for some meant that snowdrops were associated with death.


From the white of the snowdrop to the golden yellow of the winter aconite. This low plant can create a stunning display of yellow at what is often a grey time of year.  It certainly lifts the spirits of many and it isn’t uncommon to see it flowering next to snowdrops making for a lovely sparkling display.

Winter aconites. ©Lorne Gill

The winter aconite, is reckoned to be a native of south west continental Europe and, just like the snowdrop, is naturalised in the UK.  It has nothing to do with the ‘real’ aconite.  Instead it’s a member of the buttercup family and loves deep deciduous woodland where it flowers before the tree canopy opens.


Without tree leaves “getting in the way” light can get down to ground level even at this time of year making the flowers very visible.   The flowers reflect UV light suggesting that they are adapted to attract pollinators which can see the UV spectrum. As an early source of nectar winter aconite has a role in helping insects that venture out before spring is fully in swing.


And so to crocuses, where the colour range increases significantly. Spring-flowering crocus is a great source of early nectar and pollen for foraging bees and flies as the days begin to warm up. Indeed the sight of pollen-sprinkled bumblebees on purple crocuses with their vivid yellow stamen is an increasingly popular macro photograph these days.


As with many plants we can’t be 100% sure of how the crocus made it to Scotland, but it is reckoned that the bulb originated from parts of western China, the Middle East and Mediterranean parts of Europe. Again this isn’t a difficult plant to care for and provided the bulbs are not sunk too deeply they have a chance of doing well, and you certainly don’t need to tidy up after them once they have flowered. I do however note that I get the odd squirrel digging up the bulbs!


If you want to get your garden or container buzzing, these popular plants might be just thing for you. They will add a dash of early colour, and our pollinators will certainly benefit.  Enjoy them this year if you have them, and perhaps plan for next year if you don’t!