Extension Educator, Horticulture
There are numerous "four letter words"in the English language. You know words like weed and work. If snow wasn't on your "four letter word" list before, it probably is now. However for all those plants already emerging this spring, snow was the best insulator they could have against cold weather. If plants had flowers showing color, the flowers may be history for this year. Repeat the gardening mantra "There is always next year." This spring is a good example of gardening lesson number one - learn to be resilient. Often with late cold weather, we see a reduction in the length of bloom time. If just leaves were exposed, you may see leaf damage (that cooked spinach look) but they should still flower fine.
Some early flowering plants just seem to smile through the snow. Our native Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, may not have a name that is easy to snuggle up to but it's a pretty amazing plant. It's one of the earliest natives to bloom, appearing in late February into March. The large heart shaped leaves appear after the flowers. The skunk term comes from the odor given off when any of the plant parts are crushed.
Skunk cabbage is in the calla lily family so it has a spathe and spadix flower, imagine a candle in a candleholder. The spathe of skunk cabbage, the candleholder, is a mottled brown, maroon and green. The fleshy spathe pokes through the soil to later open up like a crab claw to reveal the fleshy spadix (the candle) where the seeds will develop. The flowers have an amazing ability to warm the air around them. As the flowers develop, the air temperature around them remains constant—as much as 30 degrees above the surrounding air temperature. Snow melts around them and the flies that pollinate the flowers are attracted to the warmth and odor. Skunk cabbage is not common in east central Illinois, but can be found in the humus rich, moist woods of Forest Glenn Nature Preserve south of Danville.
Snow trillium, Trillium nivale, is a lovely little flower appearing in early March on bluffs in woodlands. It grows two to six inches tall with a delicate white flower with three "petals." Look quick for the flowers and leaves do a quick fan dance then they are gone until next year. Snow trillium can be found along with numerous spring lovelies at Allerton Park in Monticello.
Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is native to the alpine areas of Europe and Asia but seems to flourish just fine here. The flowers appear in February on three to four inch stems. The dangling earring looking flowers are white with a touch of green. 'Flore Pleno'is a double flowered form. The bulbs should be planted in fall or clumps can be divided after flowering.
Glory-of-the-Snow, Chionodoxa luciliae, is another early flower as its name implies. The star shaped blue flowers have white centers and appear on six-inch tall spikes. Glory-of-the-Snow is native to Asia. White and pink flowers are also available. Chionodoxa gigantea has the largest flowers.
Snowflake, Leucojum aestivum, bloom later in spring. The numerous white bell shaped flowers dangle on 18 inch stems. The leaves are strap shaped and form arching clumps. The cultivar 'Gravetye' is said to be more vigorous and produce more flowers. These bulbs should also be planted in fall.
Luckily Snow-in-Summer refers to this plant's appearance and not its weather forecast. Cerastium tomentosum is covered in white blooms in May. It makes a nice groundcover or rock garden plant with its wooly silver leaves. It needs good drainage or it will be "Dead-in-Fall."
Check out Allerton Park on Saturday April 13 for programs on spring wildflowers and birds. Call the Visitors Center at (217) 244-1035.