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The Greens and Golds of Spring
by Des Kennedy
May 7, 2000

After the bold chorus of the crocus show has faded, the garden gives way to a softer and more serene colour scheme. There’s still the vivid blue of grape hyacinths and the tumult of red tulip groupings, but the overall impression is more of pale golds and creams, colours that complement the subtle shadings of green in emerging leaves.

On certain shining spring mornings, sunlight spilling through a garden seems itself a mix of green and gold, the very essence of spring. This springtime light -- at least where I live -- is not the honeyed golden glow of September; rather it has a clarity and lucidity about it, a sprightly sense of fresh unfolding.

A white-flowering crabapple grows in our garden, a tree that in full bloom would bring the tender-hearted to tears with its beauty. But well before its white blossoms begin to appear, the tree’s new leaves create a lovely cloud of pale green tinted golden in the sunshine. Wild elderberry bushes at the edge of the woods have the same shining yellow/green quality, enhanced by their creamy candles of flowers in late April. Even the grasses of the lawns have it, and the hazy weeping willow across the pond.

This brief interval of emergences is among the most precious of the year, and the gardener’s challenge is to develop planting schemes that reflect its essence.

Daffodils, of course, ride the crest of the wave, but I think the most frequently seen big yellow trumpet types work best at a distance where they’re free to excite the romantic poet’s imagination from half a mile away.

Inside the garden the subtleties of spring light are better reflected by the softer coloured sorts, of which there are dozens in white, cream, pale gold and apricot. Among my favourites are elegant cream/white ‘Thalia’; ‘Ice Follies’ with a hint of yellow inside a crown surrounded by a paler perianth; shining icy white ‘Mount Hood’; and jaunty little ‘Cheerfulness’ with soft apricot centres inside its small double crown. Drifts the these pale beauties across the yard create a sense that is, as one writer put it, 'serene and softly exciting'.

Blooming at the same time, cream and pale yellow tulips pick up and extend the motif. We have drifts of one tulip that blooms faithfully year after year, whose name is for the moment buried somewhere in the archives. No matter, for its blooms are exceptional -- a rich creamy white, blushed with hints of green and yellow. When the late April sunlight shines through them, they give the impression of holding a translucent green/gold elixir in their chalices.

The little species tulip, Tulipa tarda, is nowhere near so spectacular, but has its own small stratagems for combining spring colours: each of its six slender petals is a soft yellow at the centre, fading to pale cream at its tips.

These mingle handsomely with clumps of old English primroses whose buttery yellow flowers tucked in amongst crinkly green leaves seem to embody the ancient spirit of spring. Other primulas add a more contemporary touch; we have one with larger white blooms vivid with strong orange/yellow markings at their centres. Another has tiny double flowers coloured a rich gold brushed with orange.

Right down at ground level, a patch of golden marjoram gleams between sandstone blocks, its opposite pairs of golden heart-shaped leaves washed with pale green.

Emerging clumps of feverfew -- which self-seed perhaps a touch too enthusiastically at our place -- have a fresh lime green/yellow cast to them that nicely complements the other tints crowded into this part of the spectrum. There’s also a subtle hint of yellow in the new foliage of lady’s mantle and the aquilegeas. The nubs of emerging variegated hostas have their creams and greens scrolled together like the colours of furled flags.

Several of the euphorbias are especially fine at creating a wash of bright yellow/green in spring. One of the best for us is the cushion spurge, E. polychroma, which forms a golden mound suffused with pale green, from the clear yellow bracts surrounding its small flowers. Mrs. Robb’s bonnet, E. robbiae, creates an equally lovely and long-lasting massed effect from its lime-green bracts. It’s particularly useful in dry shade.

In a moister shady corner we grow the Celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, which holds its golden yellow flowers on branched stems above soft green foliage shaped like oak leaves.

The combined effect of these plantings -- combined with the whites of flowering cherries, arabis and all the rest -- is a shining lightness, a glimmering and pure clarity that somehow, like spring itself, evokes hopefulness and a bracing sense of well-being.

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