Friday, February 18, 2011

Winter Gifts from Ants

The stormy, wet winter has made me more than ready for spring and the burgeoning new growth that accompanies it. Returning from my walk to fetch the mail I meander slowly, enticed by the sun and warming temperature. I am drawn to our small pond. Full to overflowing and clouded with muddy runoff through much of this season, on this day it is clear and within its normal banks. The heavy overflow has eroded and deepened the stream bed below the small concrete dam, but the dam has held. Deciduous trees and shrubs are still bare, but buds on the small magnolia tree are swelling and rich red stems of Siberian dogwood stand out against the grassy hillside.

Walking close beside the garden along the side of the house, I search carefully for signs of new growth emerging through the detritus of last fall. Although I see none yet, memory serves me well as I clearly picture where each clump of crocus and grape hyacinth lies. A gravel path runs beside this garden and in summer it is a nice contrast to the verdant, shady bed. Walking on it, rather than on the boggy, wet grass, keeps my shoes from becoming soaked and is especially welcome on this day when the yard is still spongy. Strolling along it, I am reminded of the wonderful little gifts I’ve found buried there among the assorted weeds and ground cover “escapees” from the garden.

Two small plants once grew in this garden - one white and one pink - which are known as hardy cyclamens. Both of these put out leaves in the fall and throughout the winter, which die back in the spring and summer. Since they are native to the northern and eastern Mediterranean, this trait allows them to survive through the heat of summer there. The white one was fall blooming, producing its small, exotic flowers a month before its leaves arrived. The pink one was winter blooming, beginning in December, a few weeks after its leaves appeared. The flowers of both of these begin as tightly twisted spirals, which open slowly and stand tall until pollinated. They then are coiled down, spring-like, on their stems to ground level and tucked under the leaves for insulation and protection while the seeds ripen open. It is said that ants are attracted to a sweet substance on the seeds and are responsible for scattering them about when ripe in the spring and summer, so new plants are often found in unlikely places the next winter. There’s no predicting the exact time of germination - they sprout on their own individual timing. Cyclamens make tiny bulbs just beneath the soil before they send up their first tentative leaf.

I have found a fair number of small cyclamen bulbs growing among the pebbles of this path each summer as I tackle the weeds. Carefully digging them up, I’ve moved most of them to another shady garden near our back door and have enjoyed watching them slowly develop and spread out. This fall, a few small white blooms appeared and now, when I’m hungry for color, I’m greeted by several clumps of bright pink as I round the corner and head for the door. I still find it hard to believe that anything would bloom in the dead of winter, but every plant has its own specific time. So here these small wonders are - warming me through and through with their perky, bright heads. Reminding me that spring is on the way. Filling me with gratitude - even for the lowly ant.

He has made everything
beautiful in its time.
Ecclesiastes 3:11


  1. You are such a font of information! I have so much to learn yet about the plants of the Northwest. Thanks for your lessons.

  2. You are most welcome, Sherrie! Since I was not born & raised here either, I've learned it all little by little myself over the past 30 years. These diminutive hardy cyclamen are not natives, of course, but they do really well in this climate & are so welcome this time of year. If you get yourself only 1 or 2 of them, and pay close attention, you will have many more in the future...

  3. oh i love these pictures!!

    and it;s so nice to start to see SPRING poking through! yay!! i love to see the buds starting! :laura