This is the month when everything seems to take off in the garden, especially when we have a run of unseasonably warm weather like we’ve had last week, though this week’s snow has put a bit of a damper on things! At the beginning of the month, the snowdrops were looking a little sad and trees were still bare but now everywhere is full of daffodils and tree buds are starting to burst. The Hellebores which were flowering in January are still going strong in the Botanics, as well as in my own garden.
One of the reasons hellebore blooms last so long is that the bright coloured ‘petals’ are actually the sepals, which protect the flower in bud in most species and are generally more robust than petals; the petals have evolved over time into the short, tubular nectaries which surround the dense cluster of stamens. Our two native hellebores don’t make it as far north and east as Durham in the wild, though I have seen what I take to be garden escapes of the aptly named Stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus, locally.
Early in March many trees are in flower too. January’s blousy Hazel catkins are long over but many of the garden’s conifers have their own tiny flowers. I was amused to notice that the immature female cones on Lawson cypress are blue and the male, pollen-bearing ones are red; a nice bit of anti-gender stereotyping!
Conifers, like my favourite Ginkgo trees, are gymnosperms – amongst the first plants in evolutionary history to produce seeds to protect the tiny embryo after fertilisation. Before the gymnosperms, there were seed ferns, no examples of which remain today; all plants before the seed ferns relied on spores for reproduction. Spores germinate and start to develop more or less as soon as they are shed, with the new plant surviving or dying depending on whether conditions are right for it. Seeds, on the other hand, provide secure, long-term, dormant stage for the embryo, and allow it to wait until conditions are right before it germinates. They also allow the seed to be transported much longer distances from the parent plants, further improving its chances of success.
The name gymnosperm means ‘naked seeded’; the plant’s ovules and seeds are not protected by an ovary or fruit as they are in the flowering plants (angiosperms) but are held on the scales of the maturing female cones. Because gymnosperms evolved long before insects were available for pollination, they rely on wind to carry pollen grains from the male to the female cones, so generally produce vast quantities of very light pollen. You can see clouds of it if you tap a male cone on a warm sunny day at this time of year – a hayfever sufferer’s nightmare! The whole process is much slower than in the flowering plants, taking up to two and a half years from pollination of the young female cone to the point where the cone dries out and sheds its seeds.
Of course, there are other more showy plants in the garden too – the first of the flowering cherries in the Japanese friendship garden are coming into bloom.
And there are shrubs in flower too – Berberis, Camelia, Pieris and Rhododendron in the Woodland garden.
But, above all, March is daffodil time in the gardens, with blooms of every size and colour, from Wordsworth’s delicate wild daffodils, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, to ancient cultivars such as Pheasant Eye, Narcissus poeticus and everything in between. Both daffodils and the early Iris flowering now are originally mountain plants, as are tulips. Underground bulbs or corms are a more reliable way of reproducing and overwintering in harsh, cold environments. Inside a daffodil or tulip bulb is the tip of a new stem, well protected by layers of fleshy scale leaves or leaf bases – it is effectively a compressed shoot which can start to grow underground. The corm of an Iris, in contrast, is a swollen stem base covered with scale leaves – a section of stem modified for underground growth.
Though we think of them as native Wild daffodils, like so many other things, are believed to have been brought to Britain from Southern Europe by the Romans. The Romans ascribed medicinal properties to them but the bulbs are pretty toxic, containing both the potent alkaloid lycorine and irritant oxalate crystals. That may explain why they have spread so widely rather than being eaten by small, hungry mammals in winter time as many other bulbs are.
In ancient Greek mythology, the name Narcissus comes from the flower’s downward facing head. Narcissus is supposed to have become so self-obsessed with his own reflection in a pool of water (the original narcissist) that he fell in and drowned, the first wild daffodil springing up from the spot. More prosaically, the name may come from the Greek word narkao (numbness) because of the plant’s toxicity. Geoffrey Grigson, in The Englishman’s Flora, has the common name daffodil coming from the Medieval Latin affodilus, which he links to the Greek Asphodelus; a plant associated with Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. Abducted from a meadow of asphodels and narcissus by Hades, King of the Underworld, Persephone returns to the surface each spring to visit her mother, Demetra, returning to the Underworld before the pomegranates ripen in autumn. Demetra, as the goddess overseeing the land’s fertility, mourns her daughter’s absence each winter so the earth remains barren until Persephone returns to the surface each spring; a very early origin story for the seasons.
However, before around 1500, daffodils were known in Britain as affodyle, from the old English Affo dyle, meaning one which comes early, so you can take your pick of the name’s origins! Whatever you call them, daffodils are potent harbingers of spring.