EVERYBODY KNOWS how good-looking peonies are when they send those red cones through the earth, to unfold a few days or few weeks later into bronzy leaves.
And all gardeners know the many other plants that are equally exciting as their new growth begins, but just here I should say that those new to gardening have unsuspected pleasures ahead of them from these very sources.
At first, almost everybody starts to garden in order to produce flowers or fruit, not realizing how splendid plants are at those times of year when they are not even thinking about flowers.
The ordinary Siberian squill (Scilla sibirica) always emerges later than I expect it to, but suddenly it sends sturdy purple-green cones up a half an inch, and with incredibly few days it is a sheet of gentian blue, that blue with green in it.
The Virginia bluebells is as beautiful when sprouting as it is in full flower. Its tongue-like leaves are mat finished, like excessively high quality suede, with hints of blue and rose in the green.
Nothing, to my mind, is more beautiful than a common grape, which is cautious and conservative in sprouting.
We are well into April before those tight woody bumps along the stem swell to double their size and get a slightly furry or fuzzy surface. For several days they are at that stage, then the buds, very like globes, turn reddish and, at last, the tiny grape leaves emerge. You would expect them, from the look of the swelling buds, to be quite fuzzy, but often they are glossy as if waxed, and often a soft mahogany color. In a few days (they grow with surprising speed) these tiny leaves are the size of your hand, and have changed to soft grayish green.
I like to see the common akebia vine sprout out. Its five-part leaves hang straight down, like the hand of a quite weary person wondering if it is worthwhile to pull up the yo-yo. But when mild days come, the leaves stand straight out, and the gardener is pleased to think he possesses such high-quality goods, for the leaves are infinite in number. I value this vine chiefly for its great appearance of luxuriance in March and April, while other things are just waking up.
A friend is alarmed at "Lady Betty Balfour" who, along with most other clematis, has a way of looking quite dead in March. About the time mourning ceremonies are scheduled, the gardener commonly finds his grief interrupted by little flourishes of leaves along the stem. The great white clematis, "Henryi," sprouts earlier, and one is never alarmed about him. You can see, even in January, he is in good shape and will soon burst forth, but some others, including Betty, cause annual anxiety.
The Japanese butterburr - I believe the only time I whined publicly I could not find this plant and hinted delicately it would be awfully fine if . . . and someone kindly gave me a plant - well, this butterburr sends up greenish-white flowers that look like nothing more than surly and sun-starved daisies packed in a sardine can. They are shielded from frost by green bracts like leaves, and the whole thing looks somewhat like lime-green ping-pong balls that open to show the not-very-pretty flowers.
It is for the leaves, of course, and not the flowers that such plants are grown. Gardeners either like huge leaves or they do not.
The most dreadful aspect of this winter, for me, was the disappearance of all leaves from a plant I have always grown and suspect is Rudbeckia maxima, though I have never known, since it was in a former garden long before I was born, and nobody else seems to grow it.
It has graceless stems 6 feet or so in the summer with relatively ugly and coarse coneflowers.Its great beauty is its leaves, growing from a sort of rosette on the ground, and suggesting a cabbage both elongated and exhausted. These leaves are often a pleasure to see in the winter, and I encourage them with some manure in the fall. Then they are thick and blue-green.
This year there was a single leaf above ground, and I began to mutter about Dec. 27, and stopped on March 16 when at last - and high time - a few tiny leaves appeared through the earth. What a calamity it would be to lose this plant.
What is more comforting than new growth on the roses? After a severe winter, to see the salmon-bronze sheaves sprout out from old woody stems is startling, and it is too soon for anything in the way of roses to have proved a disappointment. Every few years I announce to myself that I am through, once and for all, with damned roses. But not quite.
The lilies are not yet up. But then they are not supposed to be. No matter, it makes one nervous all the same.
The smoke bushes are always late leafing out. Help, help, but I suppose they will be along in a few weeks as usual.
Who does not love the trout lilies as they emerge, spotted as if oil were dropped on their leaves?And the spiked awls of camellias, that will become sheaves of new leaves are very fine to see. So are the flannel buds of witch hazels.
A reader rightly rebuked me for misquoting a line of Marvell's a while back, and I freely admit I can think of few things half so loathsome as willynilly blundering when stealing the flowers of our major garlands. The correct line is, of course, "What wondrous life is this I lead, Ripe apples drop about my head . . ." Drop, not fall.
Gardeners know, from time to time through the year, that surprised and brimming contentment, as if the world were some paradise and the gardener pottering about in it.
I knew a fine gardener who had a tic in her eye which of course fascinated children (and adults) and when she got very excited, as she did during the camellia season and the season of auratum lilies (and roses, too), she used to hum vague tunes. She would show you around, doing her eye and saying yes, this was a Bressingham seedling, humde-hum. She was too old to jump up and down. We who are not, should do so daily, while legs last.