We have just enough snow this year to frame the snowdrops. Our yard has two clusters of snowdrops: one under the eaves, and one in the tiny patch of grass between our Japanese maple and burning bush. Some years, both clusters bloom; other years, one or both are buried in snow. I often wonder what it’s like to be a snowdrop living an entirely subterranean existence for most of the year, waiting blindly for a spring that may never come.

What do the snowdrops do when they are blanketed in deep snow? Do they sprout regardless, bruising their leafy heads on an unforgiving ceiling of snow? Or do bulbs wake only when the sun herself warms the earth they sleep in, some slumbers lasting years rather than months while perennial hopes lie buried and waiting?

A single scilla

One odd benefit of having four March nor’easters in a row is the series of springs we’ve experienced in between storms. Even though these past few weeks haven’t been warm, the combined effect of longer days and a more direct angle of sunlight means March snow melts quickly. Even as we wait for our fourth snowstorm, a significant portion of previous snow has already melted, temporarily revealing bare patches of earth.


Despite the two feet of snow we received last week, our day lilies are sprouting, and both snowdrops and scilla are blooming if you know where to look. Spring perennials aren’t deterred by snow: as soon as sunlight hits bare ground, they sprout, bloom, and ultimately outlast even the heaviest snowfalls.

Snowdrops in snow

On bright days, the snow sublimes into thin air, and even on gray days, the snow shrinks from below, the soil absorbing and then slowly emitting the warmth from daytime sunlight. Winter storm Toby can rage and spew all he wants, but the simple fact remains: spring snow never lasts for long, and ultimately both spring and summer prevail.

Two snowdrops

Last year, after a particularly snowy winter, I spent most of March counting the days until what I call sandal season: the days of spring and summer when it’s warm enough to walk in sandals rather than socks, shoes, or boots. “After so many months of slipping down sidewalks slabbed with ice and hard-packed snow,” I wrote last year, “it’s a simple luxury to walk unimpeded, shoes feeling carefree after an entire season of hiking boots.”

Spring sprouts

This winter was mild and virtually devoid of snow, so I can probably count on two hands the number of times I wore weatherproof hiking boots instead of shoes. Still, today marked a happy milestone as J and I took a sunny afternoon walk in shirtsleeves, shorts (for J), and sandals (for me). Last week, my “Frontier in American Literature” students finished discussing Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, which features an old, eccentric hermit named Ivar who goes barefoot year-round, believing (as I’ve noted previously) that “feet are a body part immune to sin and thus safe to indulge in sensuous and sometimes dirty delights.” It cheers me to think that crazy old Ivar felt everyday the uninhibited freedom my feet felt today.


In past years, I’ve regaled you with photos of snowdrops sprouting near a stone wall Reggie and I passed nearly every morning on our walks, a place where crocuses sprouted in the shade of trees that have since been felled. Now that Reggie is old, we don’t go that far on our morning walks: just around the block if the weather’s nice, and not even that when it’s wet or the footing is treacherous. When you live with an old dog, you suit your stride (and the length of your walks) to his abilities.


This year, thanks to a milder-than-usual winter, the snowdrops have come to us. I knew there was a cluster of perennial bulbs in our front yard, planted by other hands beneath the shelter of our front eaves…but most years, those snowdrops lie buried beneath a winter’s worth of snow raked from our roof. How frustrating it must be to be a cluster of snowdrops planted in a place that is perpetually piled with snow. How many years, one after the other, have these resilient plants sent up hopeful sprouts, only to hit a cold ceiling of snow?

When J and I visited the Wellesley Greenhouses this past weekend, we encountered a similar example of vegetative resilience: an otherwise ordinary-looking shingle plant that is blooming for only the second time in eleven years.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

It’s a sight J and I would have normally missed, but an enthusiastic greenhouse worker pulled us aside, having noticed our cameras: “You’ll want to get a photo of this!” When, normally, would an otherwise ordinary-looking plant sprouting otherwise nondescript greenish-white flowers draw attention of a couple of amateur paparazzi? The only thing remarkable about these flowers is the simple fact that they are there. On a plant where nothing has bloomed for nine out of eleven years, this year there is something: a tiny handful of hope.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

It cheers me to consider the vegetative persistence of both these plants–not exactly late bloomers, but blooms that appeared in due time. For so many years, the time wasn’t right for our front-yard snowdrops or the Wellesley College shingle plant: for so many years, these two have been quietly going about their vegetative business in the shadow of other, showier specimens. But this spring, for whatever reason, time itself has blossomed into fullness: a moment when the stars and season perfectly aligned, sending a clear signal to Bloom Now, without delay.

Snowdrops, ready to bloom

Here’s a word of encouragement to my colleagues and neighbors in Keene: spring is beginning to arrive in Massachusetts, so it will make its way north to New Hampshire someday soon.

Sprouting snowdrops

Keene, NH is about 90 miles northwest of Newton, MA, and at the start of almost-spring, those 90 miles make all the difference. This weekend in Massachusetts, I spotted the year’s first snowdrops in the same spot as last year, more or less on schedule; snowdrops in Keene, on the other hand, typically don’t bloom until late March. Yesterday morning in Newton, after a weekend of warmth and rain, much of the snow had melted, revealing sidewalks, yards, and baseball fields that have been buried for months. When I arrived in Keene yesterday afternoon, I found New Hampshire to be noticeably colder than Massachusetts, with temperatures below freezing and more than a foot of old snow still on the ground. In New Hampshire at least, it will be a while before anyone is playing baseball outside.

It might take a few weeks for almost-spring to travel the 90 miles between Newton and Keene, but it’s coming. Earlier today while enjoying a quick dog-walk down almost-clear sidewalks that were covered in ice last week, I saw the year’s first turkey vulture soaring overhead. In Hinckley, Ohio, the March 15th return of migrating vultures is cause for celebration; in New Hampshire at least, a lone soaring vulture is enough to make me think of the spring days that will glide into view someday soon.

First snowdrops

There’s nothing particularly natural about snowdrops blooming during this week’s February thaw. Snowdrops aren’t native to New England, but they are a popular perennial in yards and gardens, given the jolt of hope they provide after another long winter. This year’s winter hasn’t been particularly natural, or normal: we’ve had relatively little snow, and these snowdrops are blooming a full two weeks ahead of last year. It just doesn’t seem right to have so little snow-cover and blooming snow-drops in February, an unsettling reminder that global climate change causes all sorts of unpredictable weirdness.

Budding snowdrops

Year after year, snowdrops obediently bloom where they are planted: J and I aren’t gardeners, but every year we enjoy the perennials planted by our house’s previous inhabitants. Perennials are a bit spooky that way: their cellular memory easily outlasts the lives (or at least the addresses) of the folks who plant them, and their annual appearance serves as a reminder of time’s brevity. As much as we long for spring flowers in the depths of winter, when snowdrops appear, there’s always a sense of untimely surprise: you, already?

There’s nothing particularly natural about non-native, ornamental flowers blooming exactly where they were planted along the edge of a neighbor’s walled yard, but there’s something intrinsically natural about perennial tenacity. I once attended a housewarming party where the hosts asked their guests to bring any sort of flower bulb which they collected, mixed, and planted at random throughout their yard and garden: a sort of spring surprise. What kind of world do we live in where housewarmings never end, the ghosts of guests returning every year via the bursting bulbs they left behind?

Snowdrops aren’t native to New England, and neither are most New Englanders. Long after you and I have moved on to the grave or other climes, these tough, tenacious flowers will continue to bloom, naturally.

This is my belated contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Nature.


Less than a week ago, the sky dumped more than a foot of snow on this spot; today, a warm, spring-like morning revealed the first snowdrops, right on schedule. These mild, muddy, and unbelievably bright days are our reward for weathering another long New England winter: a reminder that underground, perennial roots have harbored hope that spring will return again, eventually.

The end is near

I don’t usually snap photos while driving between Massachusetts and New Hampshire…but who can resist a truck that makes perfectly clear THE END is near? (For the record, I wasn’t tailgating: this is a zoomed and cropped shot.)

I would have thought The End of Winter was near now that a small cluster of snowdrops are blooming in their accustomed spot here in Keene…and yet, the forecast calls for some six inches of snow to drop on southwestern New Hampshire by tomorrow afternoon. Luckily I’m heading back down to Massachusetts, where nothing worse than a little wintry mix–not exactly The End of the World–is forecast for tonight. The End of Winter will arrive even in Keene…eventually.


Here’s a telling gauge of how Massachusetts compares to New Hampshire in terms of seasonal progress. Whereas I traditionally see the first snowdrops in Keene in late March, I spotted Newton’s first snowdrops on March 3rd this year, about three weeks before they’ll bloom in New Hampshire. While Newton and other Boston suburbs have already changed their clocks to Spring Standard Time, Keene and the rest of southwest New Hampshire are still on Snowfall Saving Time.