Early flowering bulbs
It may come as some surprise, given the current obsession with snowdrops, but there are many other spectacularly beautiful early-flowering bulbs giving it their all at this time of year. Crocus, aconites and winter iris are also unfurling their exquisitely tiny flowers in little explosions of colour. We asked Chris Ireland-Jones, owner of multiple RHS gold medal winning bulb specialists Avon Bulbs, to recommend some of the best.
With the Sarcococca scent wafting past the door on even slightly warmer days, I am reminded that sight alone isn't enough, even in winter.
We all have noses, and no matter how beautiful a flower is, if it is not scented has it not already lost half of its attraction? And even small, individually unremarkable flowers can boost themselves up the ratings. You would have to wait till April for the fabulous musky perfume of Muscari ambrosiacum - but with a name like that if it didn't have a half decent whiff you would complain to the Trade Descriptions people! Bees love them for when it is just warm enough for them to fly, the flowers will be opening.
Completely hardy and very early flowering, the winter aconites seem to flower even better in colder winters. There are really only two that are widely grown, and generally only Eranthis hyemalis, a European native, grows and spreads. Eranthis cilicica, with more finely-cut leaves and a redder stem, is widely sold in its dry form, but is less likely to be happy so far from its natural habitat in Turkey.
These cheerful characters, 'choir boys' as my mother-in-law calls them, provide a strong yellow contrast to the snowdrops. But as with snowdrops, a few avid collectors have been at work and you can now find other interesting variations: pale butter-coloured E. 'Schwefelglanz' or a green striped form called E. 'Grunling' E. 'Guinea Gold' and E. 'Orange Glow' are two rather bigger forms, the presumed result of hybridisation. It is from such humble beginnings that enthusiasms develop.
We will enjoy them now and in a month's time, if the clumps are thick, lift and split them to smaller pieces and replant quickly with a watering can at the ready to settle them in. Much easier than dealing with dry dormant bulbs, and the results more guaranteed.
I know of purists who can't abide the strong yellows of the winter aconites disturbing the quiet so early in the spring; they are happy to wait for the snowdrops to pass over and give the daffodils their due time in the sun.
The same folk are doubtless offended by Narcissus 'Rijnvelds Early Sensation', which can flower quite normally in early January, sometimes even in late December. Ours opened for their first little peek at the world on January 25th this year, three weeks later than usual. But planted alone at the base of a mulberry and lighting up the slowly lengthening days they cause me little offence and a great deal more cheer. Spring is on the way.
Other early signs are the noses of the reticulata irises pushing purposefully through the gravel. They will soon elongate and open to dazzle with their showy flowers, but we will have to be patient for them still.
Iris reticulata 'George'
I favour the broader petalled and darker hued forms - ones such as Iris reticulata 'George', though I sometimes wish that the person who named this form had had a keener appreciation of the potential marketing possibilities that a pretty girl's name might have provided. After all, it is gorgeously scented.
Easier to keep going from year to year is the slightly weirdly coloured, but fascinating I. r. 'Katharine Hodgkin'. It is a hybrid form and has the colouration I associate with some seaweeds - yellows and smudgy blues.
Amongst a family that can be quite tricky to grow all that this needs to flourish is a favourable start in a rich soil, with perhaps a leafy small Daphne for company and to provide shade in summer. Now that would make a delightful perfumed pairing.