I have often wondered what it would be like to awaken a bear in the middle of his hibernating sleep in winter. Would it be a brusque encounter, or would it be peaceful, like a newborn infant awakening on his own without complaint and surrounded by happiness? I like to think it would be the latter. There are no bears in the northern Bronx, where Bartow-Pell is located, but I often think of awakening gardens as slumbering bears. Of course, this is a bear that is green in color, has long branching arms and a docile fragrant smell, the smell of early spring flowers. And climate change may be the rude awakening we have imposed on our slumbering garden. A winter walk through the grounds at Bartow-Pell is unlike any other year in memory. Autumn came, and despite the surprising snowstorm in October, we have had precious little snow. And the cold spells we have had have always been followed by weather that feels decidedly springlike.
Pushing through the thick ground-covering mats of ivy and pachysandra, delicate white hanging flowers have been sprouting from the ground. Gardeners have long considered these harbingers of spring. Galanthus, commonly known as snowdrops in America, or “sneeuwklokjes” (Dutch for “snow clocks”) in The Netherlands, have sprouted around the grounds. Galanthus, from the greek ‘gala‘ (milk) combined with ‘anthos‘ (flower) are the most pronounced markers of the progression of time in a garden.
Galanthus are best enjoyed en masse rather than alone on solitary stems. They increase quite rapidly by producing bulb offsets underground and by seed, which is spread about by ants. Seedlings propagated by these tiny horticulturists are not the same as the true parent. By reason of their small stature, differences often go unnoticed and very few people realize that it is possible, by a judicious choice of species, to have snowdrops flowering in the garden from October to April.
But the Galanthus nivalis prominent in our landscapes typically bloom in early March and occasionally the last day or two of February. This year, they started springing up in early February. Plants, like Galanthus, provide valuable information about our climate and could provide an early warning of the effects of climate change.
Galanthus are easy to grow and are quite hardy, blooming in sunshine or in semi-shade, in fairly damp heavy soil. Snowdrop classification is determined by the position of the leaves as they emerge from the ground and by the flower characteristics. Galanthus nivalis adapts itself easily to garden cultivation, spreading rapidly and forming vast white carpets in springtime, a truly wonderful sight.
Soon I expect to venture into the garden with my magnifying glass and a book on the genus Galanthus to identify which ones are blooming on our grounds. While I am out there, I will also be mindful of my step so I do not trample these diminutive and elegant flowers. They only come once a year, but the wait is well worth it.
Text by Luis Marmol, Assistant Curator of Gardens
Photographs by Marcel de Kok.