Spring has always been a time for renewal and clean up, the emergence of green shoots and fond floral essences, and the hopes and childhood memories associated with warmer weather. Narcissi, snowdrops, witch hazel, wet grass, and magnolia flowers are all signs of spring. I still recall smelling my first magnolia, in my neighbor’s yard, on a mild spring morning and remember being so intoxicated by the fragrance that I was almost late for school.
But this spring has been unusual. For one, it’s rather late; we had snow flurries on April Fools’ Day. Cold nights, misty mornings, and howling afternoon winds feel more like autumn than April, leaving all of us here at Bartow-Pell wondering whether spring simply forgot about us this year.
Nature, however, finally proved us wrong. As the weather warms up, the two graceful angel magnolias (Magnolia stellata) on the east end of Bartow-Pell’s formal garden have started to bloom. Magnolia stellata are a sure sign of spring promise, being the first magnolia variety to flower as the new season arrives. From the parlor room windows of the mansion, you can see their whitish outline emerging behind the century-old Taxus trees.
Magnolias are slow-growing, medium-sized deciduous shrubs that can become trees. The leaves are narrowly obovate (a botanist’s fancy word for egg-shaped). And the flowers start out white, but develop a pinkish patina as the days pass. M. stellata have an elegant, spare fragrance, so you must get very close to smell them. If you sit under the magnolias in windy weather, you may find yourself baptised by water droplets blown off the flowers. Later in the season, you may feel like you’re in a ticker-tape parade as the flower petals start to blow down like confetti.
If you’re feeling triumphant and adventurous after your baptism or parade, why not venture further for a stroll across the nine rolling acres of our grounds. There, you’ll discover the inconspicuous spring ephemerals–large masses of snowdrops and Spanish bluebells that are blooming across the lawns.
While walking in the woods, basking in the slow warm light entering our Orangerie, or sitting beneath the white canopy of magnolia flowers, we realize that spring doesn’t arrive suddenly, like a thunderstorm. Instead, the season of renewal is gradual, a slow procession of flowers, scents, and promises of fattened daffodils waiting to spread softly on our lawns.
As I gather my rakes and shovels in my wheelbarrow and head to the garden toolshed in the cellar of the mansion, a spectacular sunset lights up the sky. The gray clouds have cleared, letting the sun’s rays in to illuminate the magnolia in a blaze of white and pink. Framed by an optimistic silence from the surrounding forest, it all feels like an omen of yet another great gardening day tomorrow.
Photographs by Richard Warren