GREEN THOUGHTS: Harbingers of spring

Coltsfoot. Photo contributed

I’M A LATE BLOOMER—didn’t own a car until age 22, married just before 30, and still prefer chocolate milk over beer. In contrast to my pokiness are the early bloomers of the plant world, starting to show up now. I’m glad to see them, along with bluer skies, longer days, and the chance of a Covid shot sometime in the far future.

The sweet smell of ‘Luna,’ coming from behind the garage, has been with us for a few weeks. This is a hybrid witchhazel shrub, a cross between the Chinese Hamamelis mollis and the Japanese H. japonica. While the yellow and pink flowers cover the branches, you might miss them because they are so small, yet like bees to honey, the strong floral scent in winter draws you in.

Witchhazels are easy to grow in a sunny or mostly-sunny site with well-drained soil. The flowers come in shades of yellow, orange and red, and remain looking good for a long period. There are at least 50 named varieties of hybrid witchhazel, all a bit different, and I can understand that if one had the room, it might be fun to have a collection. The Chicago Botanical Garden grows 22 different types, and with names like ‘Glowing Embers,’ ‘Ripe Corn’ and ‘Strawberries and Cream,’ I’m almost ready to get on a plane to visit… if only I had my vaccinations.

I’ll drive up Schodack’s Western Road soon, looking along the edges of the pavement for coltsfoot. Resembling bright yellow dandelions rising on scaly stalks, the blossoms open on sunny days. The leaves, rounded affairs superficially resembling the foot of a young horse and giving us the common name, don’t appear until much later in the spring, long after the flowers have disappeared. This odd habit gave the plant one of its early names, “the son before the father,” and caused no end of confusion to early botanists, some of whom thought they were seeing two different plants, while others concluded it was a flower with no foliage. Long used medicinally in its native Europe, coltsfoot leaves were harvested to make a concoction with cough suppressing and phlegm producing properties. It was dried for smoking as well. These products were so popular that Parisian apothecary shops once advertised with signs of painted coltsfoot blossoms. Tolerant of growing in poor soils and tough places, coltsfoot in America is often ignored, sometimes labeled as an exotic invasive weed, and, in my case at least, greeted cheerfully as a harbinger of spring.

Its probably too early to see signs of the winter aconites, but I’ll check anyway. Featuring bright yellow, bowl-like flowers above a wreath of toothed foliage, Eranthis hyemalis reaches all of about four inches above the ground. After watching some local patches for years, I planted 10 tiny bulbs in 2009, and now have my own backyard colony. They normally bloom in April, persisting for maybe 10 days, then fade completely by sometime in May, yielding the stage to larger and flashier plants.

To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension email

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