Spring in the Garden
The earliest blossoms of the season, often in late winter, are the spidery, lightly-scented tassels of hybrid witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia). Here is ‘Primavera’, a bright-yellow selection that can ultimately reach 3-4 metres (10-13 feet). A hybrid, it results from cross-breeding of Japanese witch hazel (H. japonica) with Chinese witch hazel (H. mollis).
From the buttercup family comes the little winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), a tuberous plant that emerges very early in spring (or late in winter, as the name implies) to make carpets of sunshine-yellow in the garden. Native to woodlands in southern Europe, it prefers filtered sunlight under deciduous trees or shrub. The sunshine-yellow blossoms, set within a collar of fringed leaves, exhibit a trait called thermonasty, closing tight in cold temperatures or at night and opening wide when weather warms.
What would spring be without common snowdrops? Their botanical name Galanthus nivalis means "with milky-white flowers like snow". Each pendulous blossom consists of three flared white sepals surrounding three small, green-edged white petals. Snowdrops prefer peaty, moist soil where they will make large colonies in time. Their bulbs must be planted very early in autumn; some gardeners prefer to divide clumps immediately after flowering ends.
Golden crocus (Crocus x luteus ‘Golden Yellow’) is an award-winning early crocus that spreads to make a lovely pool of brilliant apricot-gold. It’s an excellent early nectar-pollen source for foraging honey bees, too.
The main entrance to the TBG is flanked with stylish seasonal containers designed by head horticulturist Paul Zammit. In this beautiful nod to spring, greenish-white hellebores pair with pussy willows, euphorbia and trailing ivy.
Early each spring, this large fragrant viburnum (Viburnum farreri) between the Nature’s Garden and the edge of the ravine overlooking Wilket Creek is a mass of pale-pink flower clusters, their nectar attracting bumblebees and butterflies newly emerged from overwintering cocoons, such as the comma and white admiral.
Glory-of-the-snow -- what an apt name for the hardy little spring bulb Chionodoxa forbesii. Like its smaller companion, Siberian squill, there is often a late snow to adorn the sky-blue flowers with their white centres. An excellent naturalizer, plant glory-of-the-snow bulbs in early autumn, along with daffodils and crocuses.
From the mountainous forests and rocky slopes of Europe to the TBG’s Westview Terrace comes winter-flowering heath (Erica carnea), a low, evergreen shrub with masses of magenta, rose-pink or white flower racemes topping stems whorled with needle-like leaves. On sunny spring days, honey bees work the tiny flowers feverishly, intent on harvesting as much nectar as possible to fortify the hive before the majority of garden flowers begin to bloom. And those pendant flowers are good at keeping out the rain, so the nectar within is not diluted.
When Max Löbner succeeded in being the first to cross the Japanese star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) with the Kobushi magnolia (Magnolia kobus) in his Pillnitz, Germany garden just before the First World War, he earned a place in botanical nomenclature with his Loebner Group magnolias. This is Magnolia x loebneri ‘Merrill’, a big (6-8 metres), hardy, multi-stemmed shrub that sometimes comes into flower so early in a warm spring that its waxy, fragrant, white blossoms are then browned with the inevitable frost that returns. It was developed in 1939 at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in 1939 and named thirteen years later in honour of botanist Dr. Elmer Drew Merrill, the arboretum’s director from 1935-1946 and a specialist in Asian flora.
Hybrid hellebores are generally in flower before Easter, thus their common name “Lenten rose”. Hybridizers have been very busy working on colourful new introductions for this genus, producing white, rose, golden-yellow, wine-red and deep bluish-black-red cultivars, and many with picotee edges and double or speckled petals. Hellebores enjoy dappled shade and moist, humus-rich soil. They are happiest in filtered sunlight under deciduous trees or, at the TBG, in a north-facing bed on the sheltered Westview Terrace behind the gift shop.
The beautiful hellebore 'Red Lady', a seed strain introduced by German hellebore expert Gisela Schmiemann.
Two more of the tiny spring-flowering bulbs: at left, another glory-of-the-snow, Chionodoxa luciliae ‘Violet Beauty’; at right, striped squill, Puschkinia scilloides. Though only a few inches tall, these little bulbs add immeasurable beauty to the spring garden. Mix them up in a basket in early autumn and plant them in drifts for a lovely show.
Emerging in early spring through a mulch of fallen leaves are the azure-blue flowers of Siberian squill (Scilla sibirica), shown here in the TBG’s little rock garden just west of the Garden Hall. The green stems belong to the perennial creeping spurge Euphorbia myrsinites. Siberian squill multiplies readily, often forming blue carpets in Toronto lawns in late March or early April.
These delightful dwarf irises grow in the TBG’s gardens: at upper left is yellow Iris danfordiae; the other two are cultivars of reticulated iris, Iris reticulata. All the small bulbous irises have a light violet scent and are planted in autumn at the same time as other bulbs.
Another Loebner type magnolia, Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel' grows on the Westview Terrace just outside the TBG lobby window and is one of the best pink star magnolias. This protected location helps shield the flowers from late frosts, but like all magnolias growing in southern Ontario, the blossoms are susceptible to tissue damage from freezing.
Flanking the staff driveway in early spring are drifts of beautiful daffodils, including this hard-working old-timer 'Ice Follies'. Daffodils are all botanically known as narcissus. They benefit from early autumn planting so their roots are well-established before winter. If they like their location, they will multiply over the years.
Though we don't always think of daffodils as bee plants, early-foraging bumble bee queens appreciate their ready supply of pollen to take back to the nest.
A photo bouquet of daffodils from the TBG’s gardens. Clockwise, from upper left: ‘February Gold’, a short (25-30 cm) early-bloomer; ‘Orangery’, a split-corona or butterfly-type daffodil with luscious mid-season flowers; ‘Flyer’, another split-corona with ruffled petals for mid-late season; and ‘Cheerfulness’, a pre-1923 heirloom daffodil with multiple, gardenia-scented, double flowers for late season enjoyment.
Hyacinths come into bloom at the same time as the early daffodils, adding their heavy perfume to the spring garden. Here are mauve-pink 'Purple Voice' (with little Tulipa turkestanica peeking out behind it); white 'Aiolis'; and bluish-purple 'Peter Stuyvesant'.
Magnolia 'Elizabeth', in the President’s Choice Show Garden, was one of the great achievements of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's magnolia-breeding program. The work of Dr. Evamaria Sperber, it was a 1956 cross of the native N. American cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata) with the Chinese Yulan magnolia (M. denudata). Twenty-one years later, the BBG patented 'Elizabeth', and it became the first hybrid yellow magnolia for sale. Today, it seems a little pale beside bright entries like 'Yellow Bird', but there is also a lovely elegance in the soft, primrose-yellow of this famous plant. It blooms a few weeks after 'Merrill' and 'Leonard Messel'.
With the first warm days of spring come the delicate white blossoms of the tree-form Allegheny serviceberries (Amelanchier laevis) in Nature’s Garden. The flowers are followed in early summer by delicious, small red fruit that the birds adore. The foliage is among the first to change colour in autumn, taking on mottle red and orange hues.
Espaliered against a warm, south-facing fence in the Kitchen Garden is Prunus persica ‘Reliance’. Developed in New Hampshire, it’s the hardiest peach available for northern gardens (unlike apples and pears which are much hardier), but prefers a warm, protected location like this one.
A beautiful spring bulb duet: brilliant blue grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) and pink Tulipa saxatilis, in the Entry Courtyard.
Spring bulbs make up the opening scene in the season-long show on both sides of the long Entry Garden Walk. Later, the foliage of the perennials and ornamental grasses will disguise the ripening leaves of the bulbs, an important consideration in designing a mixed border. (It is important to allow bulb foliage to turn yellow and wither before removing it, so that the bulb below is fully nourished for the following year.)
A spectacular May bulb show in the Perennial Garden, with the pink-and-white Darwin Hybrid tulip ‘Ollioules’, the yellow lily-flowered tulip ‘West Point’, the magenta Triumph tulip ‘Passionale’ and drifts of blue grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum).
Grape hyacinths create a river-like effect in this design. They actually have a light fragrance of grapes. The double daffodils here are 'Cheerfulness' and 'Yellow Cheerfulness'.
Each year, there’s a new and spectacular bulb planting in the Entrance Courtyard bed, which will later be a sea of ornamental grasses.
When designing bulb plantings, take into consideration elements like the foliage and flower colour of trees and shrubs nearby, as with the wine-red leaves of this Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), which look stunning with the scarlet tulips and purple and white hyacinths.
The shorter ornamental grasses, like this Carex buchananii in the Garden Hall Courtyard, can enhance tulip plantings. Though they all have slightly different colouration, these rose-streaked and yellow tulips are the same lovely cultivar, a changeable Darwin Hybrid called ‘Silverstream’. As an added bonus, this tulip features a variegated leaf.
The excellent lily-flowered tulip ‘Purple Dream’ contrasts nicely with the chartreuse-gold foliage of the conifers nearby. Behind is the Spiral Mound, with its willow shrubs beginning to leaf out.
A little spring rain doesn’t deter this garden-lover from making her way to the top of the Spiral Mound to take in the view.
And the view is spectacular, including this one westward towards the President’s Choice Show Garden, just to the left of the greenhouse.
Or the view northeast into the Garden Hall Courtyard and Westview Terrace, with its water channel edged by mixed plantings, including the dramatic burgundy-red foliage of the featherleaf Japanese maples.
Here’s the view south over the elegant Beryl Ivey Knot Garden, with its carefully-sheared, formal boxwood parterres.
In spring, this sinuous parterre holds tulips and snowdrop anemones (Anemone sylvestris).
The bottlebrush flowers of the native dwarf witch alder Fothergilla gardenii, (a more compact cousin to the large mountain witch alder, F. major) appear in May, alongside late tulips. In autumn, the leaves turn the most spectacular shades of red and orange. The Japanese maple is Acer palmatum var. dissectum 'Crimson Queen'.
The tulip season is very long, finishing with late cultivars like these ones in the Perennial Garden. The dark tulip is ‘Queen of Night’, shown here with the white lily-flowered tulip ‘Triumphator’ and peachy-coral ‘Menton’. Grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum) continue to bloom beneath the tulips.
Tulips in all their variation are the sirens of the spring display at TBG.
School children on a field trip to the TBG walk from the sunken Garden Hall Courtyard across the stone bridge past the waterfall. In the raised garden between the two buildings is a miniature woodland of spectacular pink and white redbud trees (Cercis canadensis), underplanted with fragrant 'Winston Churchill' double daffodils.
Among the earliest spring perennials is pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), so called because it is often in blossom at Easter, the “paschal” feast (or Pâques in French).
Trillium comes from the Latin “tri-“ for three, and everything about our beautiful provincial wildflower, showy trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is in threes: the shimmering white petals, the sepals and the leaves. Trillium can be found flowering in the TBG Herb Garden in mid-late May.
Against a sheltered north-facing wall on the Westview Terrace is a small bed filled with botanical treasures. Two of those are the 'Alleghany' lantanaphyllum viburnum (Viburnum x rhytidophylloides) at rear with the large flat flower clusters, and Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ whose paired shrubs are covered with clusters of starry, sweet-scented, white flowers.
Alpine clematis (Clematis alpina) is a hardy, compact clematis that blooms in mid-spring. It is trained on the south-facing fence in the Kitchen Garden.
Of all the native trees, none is more enchanting in flower than the redbud (Cercis canadensis), shown here in full bloom in late May in Nature’s Garden. Once the small pea-like flowers wither and fall, large, heart-shaped leaves emerge. They turn bright gold-yellow in autumn.
In the midst of the grasses and flowers in the Entry Garden Walk is The Garden Web, a 9-metre-tall stainless-steel sculpture by renowned Canadian artist Ron Baird. If you’re a song sparrow, it’s the perfect perch from which to trill out a spring melody.
Hanging through the rugged crossbeams of the entrance pergola in late May are the long, grape-scented racemes of Japanese wisteria ‘Issai’ (Wisteria floribunda). A strong support is essential for wisteria, whose main trunk can become thick and whose canopy eventually becomes massive. To keep wisteria flowering vigorously, it should be pruned immediately after flowering ends. (Consult a good how-to source to learn the fine points of wisteria pruning.)
Tall lavender-blue Camassia leichtlinii in Nature’s Garden is an excellent late spring bulb choice for a lightly-shaded meadow with humus-rich soil. Native to western North America, large camas or quamash (as the Chinook First Nations called the plant, whose bulbs they ate) is reliably hardy in the Toronto area.
One of the earliest large-flowered clematis vines to bloom, ‘Guernsey Cream’ has masses of white flowers bearing a light-green bar in the centre of the tepal. A compact two metres or less in height, it grows here next to the espaliered peach on the Kitchen Garden fence. ‘Guernsey Cream’ is one of the Group 2 clematis, meaning it flowers on old wood so is not pruned to the ground in early spring, like many of the summer-blooming clematis. If pruning is desired to contain growth or tidy the vine, it should be done immediately after flowering ends.
One of the best trees for a small garden, Amur chokecherry (Prunus maackii) shows off its fine attributes in the intimate confines of the Floral Hall Courtyard. Blooming in late spring, it bears masses of fragrant, bottlebrush-shaped flower racemes. Here, the flowers contrast nicely with an under-planting of bright-blue bugleweed (Ajuga reptans). In autumn, the foliage turns yellow, contrasting nicely with the shiny, copper-brown trunk. Some pruning is required to maintain this pleasing globe shape.
On the south side of the glass screen surrounding the Floral Hall Courtyard are ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapples espaliered onto horizontal steel cables. This is a creative way of decorating with trees, requiring ongoing skilful pruning to maintain the effect.
The sweeping alpine grid of the Terraced Gardens offers an ingenious way to grow and display alpine and succulent plants. Essentially a sloped soil berm enclosed on one side with metal grating (the opposite side has layered tiers), it creates a rock-garden-like habitat for plants that prefer lots of sunshine and sharp drainage. Here are colourful early June carpets of purple common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and pink rockcress (Aubrieta x cultorum), along with the bright green foliage of various stonecrops (Sedum spp.) At the far end is the TBG’s excellent collection of hardy hens-and-chicks succulents.