HOW PRECIOUS are the mild days of winter, when the brutal grip of the cold relaxes and the sun comes out and the sky turns blue. The temperature may be only 43 degrees, but what an improvement over the 12-degree wretchedness of the day before.
On such a day -- preferably a series of such days -- the gardner is likely to find a tiny flower on a witch hazel bush. For at this time of year the buds (securely wrapped in soft fuzzy scales like a jacket) already show traces of color at the tip. They are waiting only for a few 40-degree days. Off and on they will flower until mid-March, by which date they are finished for the year.
It is worth exploring obscure corners, this time of year, to see if a particularly early snowdrop is not blooming somewhere. The usual one we grow is the plain snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, named for its winter-flowering habit, though usually it is not at its best until late February or even sometimes early March (which is still winter).
But the larger flowered snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii, blooms earlier, and in sheltered places you may find it in Zone 7 (our climatic zone here in Washington) the week after Christmas. There is only one thing wrong with that snowdrop, which comes from the Crimea, and that is that it almost never settles down, over the years.
Several times I have grown these bulbs, and always they have made such a brave show early in the New Year that I have felt they were wonderfully reliable creatures. They never lasted more than three years -- sometimes only one -- with me. If I were rich, I'd buy lots of G. elwessi every year and simply replace them when they failed.
But this disappearing act of G. elwesii is, surely, why the plain G. nivalis has never been replaced in popular affection. G. nivalis, once it is happily settled in some semi-shady nook (perhaps at the edge of a clump of azaleas or near the protective skirts of a boxwood, or even on the side of a shady slope, or flat on the woodsy floor beneath oaks (or, for that matter, horse chesnuts which make terrible dry shade all summer) continues to appear forever, I guess. Some plantings are known to be a century or more in age.
Few flowers better illustrate the great truth of life: It makes a tremendous difference when things are done. The snowdrop would hardly be seen, and certainly would not be much admired, when the garden is full of roses. But in winter it is positively showy. There is no great floral competition then with its chaste nodding bells of white and green, and in winter the gardner has leisure to admire the beautiful modest strap-like leaves.
This is the time to go to the basement and fetch up the amaryllis bulbs that have sat in their pots down there, ever since you brought them indoors in October.
You withheld water (you will recall) from October on, to give the bulbs a complete rest, and now you are going down there to bring the pots upstairs where you will water them, and watch them send up huge bloom stalks.
It appears many gardeners, who get the first part of the drill down pat, fall apart in December and forget the pots of resting amaryllis until March when (while watching "60 Minutes" on television) it flashes upon them they have forgot the bulbs in the basement. They dash down, and of course the bulbs have tried to sprout, even without water.
It is a sorry sight. Avoid it. Go today and fetch them up and all will be well. They will bloom in February. Usually.