Early pollinator on Helleborus argutifolius
Whilst the snowdrops are still putting on a good display their place is gradually being taken by other spring-flowering gems. Throughout the Garden the hellebores are in full fling, from Helleborus argutifolius, an evergreen plant with clusters of green flowers, through the myriad of different colour forms of Helleborus orientalis (pinks, purples,whites), H.orientalis subsp. guttatus (white with purple freckles) to Helleborus x hyderi tucked at the base of the Garden Wall just opposite the Conservatory.
Helleborus argutifolius Helleborus orientalis 'Grasemere Black' Helleborus orientalis subsp. guttatus Helleborus x hyderi
But it isn't just this genus that is looking good at the moment. On the Rock Garden Cyclamen coum and Anemone blanda form patches of colour as do the daffodils, such as Narcissus obvallaris. Look at the far corner of the Rock Garden by the Vegetable Beds and you will find a group of Bellevalia pycnantha with their dark blue pyramids of globular flowers looking like up-side-down bunches of tiny grapes.
Narcissus obvallaris Cyclamen coum Anemone blanda Bellevalia pycnantha
Outside the Fernery are the beautiful, sultry flowers of the velvety green and black widow iris or Hermodactylis tuberosa (Hermodactylis from the Greek for Hermes finger, alluding to the knarled finger-like shape of the tuberous bulb). Walk around the Walled Garden and you will come across other beauties such as a small carpet of purple Cardamine quinquefolia on the Geographical borders by the West Arch into the Garden and the exquisite Adonis amurensis on the Ranunculaceae bed.
Hermodactylis tuberosa Cardamine quinquefolia Adonis amurensis
But don't just look down towards your feet to find these gems. Take a closer look at some of the flowering trees and shrubs that contribute to the early spring interest. Tucked away on the China section of the Geographical Beds is Edgeworthia chrysantha, reminiscent of a viburnum. Edgeworthia can be temperamental to grow but so far the Botanic Garden's plant has survived our varied climate and is in full flower now. On a sunny day it not only looks good but offers a delicious scent as well. Further round on the walls is another plant with scented flowers, Lonicera x purpusii. This is a relative of our native honeysuckle and if you look closely at the flowers you can see the resemblance (go and have a look at the wild honeysuckle at the Harcourt Arboretum later in the year). Perhaps more showy is the Cornus mas growing near the Bog Garden next to Lyra's bench. Individually the tiny yellow flowers are not much to look at but when the whole tree is covered in these clusters it creates an eye-catching yellow haze visible across the Garden.
Edgeworthia chrysantha Lonicera x purpusii Cornus mas
And what about in the Glasshouses? The Alpine House continues to provide an ever-changing display of flowers from the delicate and subtle Colchicum hungaricum and Leucojum tingitanum, to the bright, cheery little flowers of Tulipa humilis and the more robust Arum purpureospathum with its bold, deep purple spathe and spadix on display to visiting insects.
Colchicum hungaricum Leucojum tingitanum Tulipa humilis Arum purpureospathum
In the Conservatory the orchids continue to provide colour and interest but the hyacinths have been replaced by pots crown imperial fritillary, Fritillaria imperialis 'Lutea'. Is has to be said that this is quite a different scent from the hyacinths - more foxy! Perhaps a more attractive scent is provided by the Jasminum polyanthum which is just coming into flower at the moment. Over the next few weeks this will be smothered with clusters of white flowers and the glasshouse will be filled with a glorious fragrance that puts any commercial perfume to shame.
Fritillaria imperialis 'Lutea' Jasminum polyanthum
And to finish? For those fans of Harry Potter, children and grown-ups alike, you should seek out the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) on the Medicinal Quarter. This is the infamous plant that was said in medieval times to have roots shaped like a man that could scream loud enough to kill a a person if it was uprooted. In JK Rowling's books, a potion made from the mature plants was the cure for the people who had been petrified, quite literally, by the basilisk. Please don't try this with our plants - we cannot guarantee success!
UPDATE - MARCH 14th
Although many of the plants highlighted at the beginning of the month continue to show off their flowers, in the two weeks since the above was written Spring is beginning to gather pace. Plants which had been tight in bud are now open and enjoying the increasing spells of sunshine.
One impressive sight is the bold block of bright yellow Carlton daffodils on the medicinal beds, visible even on a misty day when Magdalen Tower cannot be seen. As mentioned in 'Looking Good in January' these are a major source of galantamine used in the treatment of Alzheimers disease.
In addition to the earlier flowering shrubs there are a few more that are worth your attention. Perhaps appropriately located by the compost area is the evergreen Azara microphylla. Tucked against the wall, where it gets the protection it needs, at a distance it doesn't look spectacular but as you approach the air is filled with the scent of vanilla given of by the tiny bundles of yellow flowers. Two other flowering shrubs worth mentioning are both species of the genus Stachyurus. This name comes from the Greek, stachys meaning spike and oura meaning tail, from which the common name of spike tail is derived. Both species hail from East Asia but Stachyurus praecox (Fern Border) is deciduous and S.himalaicus (Geographical Beds, Asia) is semi-deciduous.
Azara microphylla Stachyurus himalaicus Stachyurus praecox
In the Alpine House the display continues to delight with the floriferous Fritillaria bucharica with its prominent stamens and nodding cream heads. Perhaps even more eye-catching is the bright yellow Primula verticillata, verticillata referring to the way in which the flowers are whorled around the stem.
Fritillaria bucharica Primula verticillata
And to finish, the cheery sight of the Scilla siberica or Siberian squill beneath the Metasequoia glyptostroboides (just an excuse to say out loud a wonderful name!). For those botanical/horticultural collectors of interesting facts; it is not Siberian, it has blue pollen and it can be distinguished from the related Puschkinia since it has separate stamens rather than fused stamens. In order to verify this last statement you might well need a hand lens. It just so happens that the Ticket Office stocks reasonably priced hand lenses….