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Winter aconite is one of the earliest signs of spring, but it’s rarely noticed. It emerges about the same time as those delicate and highly regarded snowdrops, while a thin blanket of snow still covers the ground. Winter aconite is a hardy plant, thriving and spreading with no gardener to care for it, and when the blossoms are gone the leaves grow ever larger, making a thick green bed. This flowering plant is a member of the same family as the common buttercup, and like the buttercup it’s just there, not much noticed, disregarded and rarely found in flower beds.
For the flower gardener, crocuses are the first sign of spring. Gardeners are by nature optimists, planting seeds and nurturing seedlings in the happy expectation of a thriving, colorful flower bed. And those hopes are often fulfilled — sometimes fully, more often a bit less. But to have crocuses emerge at the end of winter you have to plant bulbs in the fall, and that takes real optimism, for by fall the garden is a hopeless mess and every despairing day is colder and darker than the day before. And you don’t get those masses of delicate blossoms unless you plant masses of bulbs and just the right depth, not so shallow they’ll be torn up by squirrels and not so deep they’ll never grow to sunny daylight.
And for the vegetable gardener, the first sign of spring is a green shoot of garlic. Like the optimistic flower lover, the vegetable gardener was busy the previous fall, planting rows of garlic cloves, covering them with a blanket of leaves and anchoring the leaves against the winter wind with twigs or light branches. The garlic grows a bit in the fall, takes a winter vacation, then starts up vigorously as the days lengthen and grow slightly warmer. Garlic has a flower but that comes later, meanwhile it puts its energy into growing tall — and, of course, there’s that subterranean garlic bulb that’s growing a bit bigger every day. If you like garlic, you ought to plant some, it takes little or no talent and the reward is great.
Crocuses are often the flowers that announce the sure arrival of spring to the suburban gardener. But an earlier herald is winter aconite. These brilliant, miniature butter-cup-like flowers pop up, seemingly overnight, about the same time as snowdrops. In the photo above you can see winter aconite, hunched up and shivering among the remnants of a snow shower. When the sun shines a bit longer and warms them up, the flowers will expand into loose, cup-like shapes, as in the photo below. You can plant winter aconite and then forget it; it’s a hardy flower and it spreads easily. Winter aconite is said to be deer resistant. Those must be deer that live far, far away from our flower beds and vegetable patch. The deer around here will eat anything you’ve taken care to plant and to nourish.