The warm February weather has brought us surprising flowers – yellow jasmine bushes everywhere, lovely little white snowdrops in the garden, bright yellow aconite at our feet and the many colors of hellebores.
Some of these plants have been around since the Greeks. All of them have come to the U.S. by complicated paths from the Mediterranean and Asia. None of them is native, which means none of them were here before the European settlers.
Their intriguing history reminds us of the civilizations and collectors who have added beauty to our gardens.
Snowdrops (Galanthus group)
Snowdrops are the early starters, sometimes blooming in my garden in December. They were known to the early Greeks in 400 BCE and their Latin name is derived from the Greek language.
This bulb probably originated on the mountain slopes of the Caucuses and the Carpathians in Rumania, Georgia, Turkey and Greece. They spread around the Mediterranean to Europe and Britain. Was it the Romans? The Crusaders? Foreign ambassadors and missionaries? We don’t know, but we do know that snowdrops were planted in England in the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.
The British are crazy about snowdrops. This month a number of British snowdrop gardens are proudly showing off their blooms to visitors.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the “hobbies” of wealthy amateurs was to collect a number of species of a rare plant and hybridize it – rhododendrons, for example. In the case of snowdrops, British catalogs now list about 20 species from all over the world and many hybrids. In U.S. catalogs, we usually find only two or three choices.
This hardy bulb multiplies quickly if you plant it in your garden. The photo here shows a patch on Brandywine Street, that I know was originally planted in the 1930s, around 85 years ago.
Aconite (eranthis hyemalis)
In the middle of January I watch for aconite’s bright green leaves. They pop up suddenly from the ground on a warm day, followed a few days later by the bright yellow buttercup bloom.
This bulb was used medicinally by the Greeks. Some members of this group are poisonous and were used to kill enemies in Greek mythology. Today the spring aconite shown in the photo is found all over Europe and Britain. It probably came to the U.S. in the 1800s with British and European immigrants. It is a member of the buttercup family and its roots are toxic.
Aconite grows easily from seeds. Most of the patches in my neighborhood have come from seeds I gave away.
Winter jasmine (jasminium nudiflorum)
This yellow-blossomed shrub is everywhere in Forest Hills, draping graceful green stems down slopes or walls. It blooms much earlier than forsythia, a completely different family. I never saw it in Cleveland, Ohio when I lived there – it needs a warmer climate like ours.
Robert Fortune, a Scotch botanist, found winter jasmine in central China in the 1840s. Fortune was one of many British and European plant collectors in the l9th century. In that time, botanical gardens and successful nurseries sent expeditions all over the world to collect new plants, partly out of scientific curiosity and partly for the garden trade.
Fortune was financed and sent to China several times by the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew.org). He brought back more than 50 species of plants now familiar to us.
These collectors were a courageous lot. Fortune’s search took him to remote parts of western China and the Himalayas that were supposed to be off-limits to foreigners. These British expeditions gave us rhododendrons, azaleas, lilies, many new rose species and a host of the garden perennials we take for granted. Robert Fortune is particularly famous for stealing Chinese tea plants and taking them to set up plantations in India.
Winter jasmine’s winter blooms begin at a hint of warmth and its evergreen stems make an attractive shrub all year round. The stems arch over and root at the tips, making it easy for a friend to give you one.
Hellebore (Helleborus group, from the Greek, “injure food”)
Although we know hellebores mainly as a garden flower, this group of plants was first known by the Greeks for their poisonous and medicinal properties. The Greek doctor Dioscorides recommended them in his herbal encyclopedia, circa 50 AD, to “eliminate phlegm and bile.” This work was the “bible” for herbal medicine throughout the world into medieval times.
Through the Middle Ages hellebores were a staple in monastery herb gardens and private herbariums in Europe, where the monks and nuns dispensed them for a wide variety of ailments. It is hard to know where they originated, but probably the Balkans.
Only in the l9th century did the early Victorians and Germans begin to see their decorative side, and start to develop the hundreds of garden hybrids we know.
The species grown most in Forest Hills is Heleborus orientalis (and hybrids), prized for its early bloom in February.
It is known as the Lenten Rose. It comes in many shades of pink, dark red and chartreuse, and is easy to find in our local nurseries. This species does not seem to be the one used by the Greeks to poison the water supply of a city they were besieging, but its roots have toxic properties as well as so-called medicinal ones.
Since I began this article, several other “foreigners” have begun to bloom. My lawn is covered with an early lavender species crocus (Caucusus mountains origin), and there is lovely red single camellia (from China or Japan) in front of nearby home.
What’s in your yard? Let us know.