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Written & Photographed
By Marty Bink

Signs of Life

Just like the crocus stem rising through the spring rain-moistened soil, Green with Envy has emerged from its winter hiatus. Spring is the golden time for gardeners and aficionados of outdoor living. The landscape begins the transformation into the centerpiece of horticultural expression. Naturally, many
of us are drawn to the exuberance of warmer weather as the signs of spring emerge. The rapture of spring is foretold in the blooming of a select group of plants. We await the explosion of color from the trusty botanical heralds to begin our vernal bliss. That is why this re-emergent edition of Green with Envy focuses on a few of the plants on which we depend to signal the start of spring.

Put on your hat

I can think of no other single bloom that is more closely associated with spring than the tulip. There seems to the ubiquitous tulip or two in practically every landscaped area. Tulips are native to Turkey and central Asia. In fact the
word tulip is derived from the Turkish word for turban (tulpend). However, it is The Netherlands that we most closely identify with these six-petaled spring harbingers. In the early 1500's a Dutch botanists introduced a gift of tulip bulbs to his garden and started a national obsession. Most varieties of tulips were developed in The Netherlands in the first couple of centuries after they were introduced. New varieties of tulip were so valued in Holland that single bulbs of promising varieties were traded as a commodity. In modern times, the tourism season in Holland centers on tulip season.

The vigorous growth, vibrant color, and extreme hardiness of tulips make them the centerpiece of any cool climate garden. There are currently fifteen divisions of tulip varieties based on bloom type, petal shape, and time of bloom (early or late) including the brilliant Rembrandt, characterized by the tiger-striped or flame variegations in the petals, and the Lilly-flowered Group with elegant pointed petals.

Because of the limited blooming season, tulips are most often used in mass plantings or small isolated beds. Mass plantings are only practical if the bulbs are removed at the end of the growing season and replaced with other types of plants. Isolated beds limit the effect of these proud flowers. One way to take full advantage of tulips' impact and compensate for the short blooming season is to incorporate tulip bulbs at the edges of existing plantings. Doing so allows the color to come to the bed in early spring and not crowd the later blooming plants. This strategy is especially effective in plantings around structures.

Just like looking in a mirror

Another sentinel of spring takes it botanical name from the self-obsessed figure from Greek mythology…Narcissus. Many people distinguish among Narcissus, daffodils, and jonquils. In fact, they are all the same. Daffodil is the common name for genus Narcissus, and jonquils are a type of daffodil.

Because daffodils require only a half-days sunlight, they are one of the first flowers to emerge in the spring and can be used around deciduous trees. Daffodils are best used to define shrub and tree plantings in the landscape. The bright blooms draw attention to landscape areas until the foliage of trees and shrubs emerge or mature. Daffodils are also useful as accent for taller early bloomers such as irises and azaleas.

Southern Comfort

If tulips are the trademark of The Netherlands, then azaleas are certainly the spring trademark of the southeastern United States. Azaleas are a woody shrub in the rhododendron family. The distinguishing characteristics are the vibrant almost luminescent color (usually in reds and pinks) of the blooms and the profusion of flowers produced from one shrub. These are attention grabbers that bring light to even the gloomiest of spring days.

Azaleas will thrive in and are admired in any temperate climate, but they are particularly venerated in the "Dixie" states. This adoration of azaleas leads to one of their most appealing qualities…great names. Varietal names include Christmas Cheer, Coral Bells, Gumpo, Geisha, and Fire Dance. There are 10,000 named varieties of azaleas. Because the majority of these varieties are either red, pink, or purple, very fine distinctions in shades are made. One would doubt there could be so many shades of red, for example, but enthusiastic botanists are able to coax more and more brilliant shades from the flower.

Azaleas are often planted as specimen plants in order to highlight the spring display. However, the shrub itself is somewhat unremarkable and does not add much to a landscape after the blooming season. Azaleas can be used effectively as a typical shrub. The massing of blooms in the spring is impressive, and the shrubs can provide a good background for other species. Care should be taken to avoid allowing the shrub to become "leggy." The shrub should be pruned after the blooming season to keep the growth compact.

Now Get Out There

I have covered only three of the many popular spring flowers. I think we all have a favorite spring flower because we use them to anticipate the greening of the landscape. Regardless of what your favorite is, spring flower bulbs should be planted in the fall or early winter. Now is the time to plan for fall-time planting. Find the type of spring flowers you like and plan how they will make the most impact in your landscape. Remember to try to incorporate your spring flowers into existing beds to create a multi-season planting.


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