Early risers

Here we go again!  After several months of the cold and prolonged darkness of winter, it’s an eagerly anticipated delight when the first sparkling flowers of the year emerge.  Amongst the highlights are surely twinkling white snowdrops, glossy yellow winter aconites, and the vivid crocus.

For many people the first glimpse of snowdrops is a sure sign that spring is coming. The dazzling white flowers can be a boon for insects and this is a plant that requires 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. 

In some areas the buff-tailed bumblebee is active in winter, and snowdrops can be a great source beyond the likes of Mahonia and winter-flowering heather.

Snowdrop have another endearing quality; they frequently grow in charming drifts comprising hundreds of flowers. As you might expect given their early flowering status, they have an interesting social history. 

Native woodland carpeted with snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) by the River Almond in Perthshire. ©Lorne Gill

Once 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 related to death.

The snowdrop has range of names across Europe. The French call it perce-neige, ‘the snow piercer’.  And if you have ever seen them poking through snow, you will sense how accurate that name is.

In Spain the snowdrop goes by the name campanilla de la nieves, or snow bell.  It’s a popular flower, and hence has more than one name. Galanto, campanilla de invierno, and rompiendo la nieve (‘breaking the snow’) are just some of the names given to this delightful flower.

The campanilla reference resonates with us here in Scotland, as campanula is the name of the genus for the ever popular Scottish bluebell or harebell Campanula rotundifolia.

As the snowdrop prepares to exit stage, the bright yellow winter aconite assumes centre stage.  This low plant can create a display of vibrant yellow in what is often a dull, 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.

The winter aconite, 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 reaches ground level even at this time of year, making the flowers visible.   The flowers reflect UV light, suggesting that they are adapted to attract pollinators which can see this 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, pollen-sprinkled bumblebees on purple crocuses with their vivid yellow stamen are popular with photographers.

More than one spring flowering crocus can be found in gardens.  The most frequently found species in gardens is spring crocus Crocus neapolitanus, from Italy.

The term ‘crocus’ in Spanish is ‘azafrán de primavera’ in effect ‘spring saffron’.  Not to be confused with the Saffron crocus Crocus sativus, which flowers in the autumn – saffron is produced in the central part with Spain, and indeed the area is one of the main world producers. 

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the other autumn crocus, Colchium, is poisonous and should not be confused with saffron.

As with many plants, we can’t be sure of how the crocus made it to Scotland, but it is reckoned it originated from western China, the Middle East and Mediterranean parts of Europe. Again this isn’t a difficult plant to care for, provided the bulbs are not sunk too deeply. And you certainly don’t need to tidy up after them once they have flowered. 

If you want to get your garden or container buzzing, the spring crocus might be just the 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!

With thanks to Terry Swainbank for the opening snowdrop image.