In Minnesota, where I used to live, winters are unforgiving. A deep blanket of snow covers the ground for six long months. The January thaw, while great for loosening the ice in your nose hairs, seldom melts enough snow to expose bare earth. Winters in my part of Virginia are markedly different. Snow is usually at a premium, and even when the ground does get laced with white stuff, it seldom makes more than a cameo appearance. There are a few exceptions, however.
A recent blizzard transported me back to my Minnesota days. A blinding haze of white swirled earthward for the better part of a day, leaving in its wake a 14-inch accumulation of satin flakes. With the help of cold temperatures, the snow lingered for nearly two weeks, then slowly faded with the rising mercury. In Minnesota, this meltdown would have signaled the start of spring, and though it was only December, I was seized with an inexplicable urge to search for signs of stirring growth. To my surprise, I found some. In reality, quite a few herbaceous and woody plants were poised for spring. Many plants, such as hellebores, are winter flowering, but some of the treasures I found usually hold their flowers until temperatures moderate. Nonetheless, there they sat, ready to spring into growth.
While snipping off the persistent brown leaves that make Hamamelis ‘Diana’ a bit of a pariah, I noticed some rich brick-red petals peeking out of the tawny, globular buds. A quick check of other cultivars revealed glints of bright color scattered among the bud clusters. Buds on flowering apricot (Prunus mume; pictured) showed no color, but they were plump and raring to go. Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) bears its globular buds in pairs. I noted the contrast of sun-burnished scales with the pale, newly exposed tissue that signals the buds are slowly opening. Even the maple buds seemed to be swelling in anticipation.
I expected to see evidence of bulbs, and I was not disappointed. Delicate, rushlike leaves of Narcissus jonquilla were the most advanced, poking an inch or more from the soil. Green noses of April-blooming snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) seemed hell-bent on defying the season. Would the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) be in bloom for the holiday, I wondered? I pulled back the leaves to find a nest of pale green buds resting just above the soil surface.
It seems only fair to mention that the first of winter's blooms usually emerge by mid-February, but in December the worst of winter's cold is yet to come. Most plants are cued into growth by a combination of photoperiod and temperature, and the days were still getting shorter. It seems that many plants receive ample winter chill in the autumn, and simply await increasing temperatures and lengthening days.
What I enjoy most about a Virginia winter is that the garden never really stops developing. Even through the few months where no flowers are evident, plants are stirring. You really can find signs of life all 12 months of the year if you know where to look. Best of all, you don't have to go nosing around under the snow with frozen nostrils to find them.