Spring at Winterthur Gardens: The March Bank Takes Center Stage

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Growing up in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley, I looked forward each year to the first buds poking their tiny heads out of the ground on Winterthur Gardens’ March Bank. Planted over a century ago, the stunning display unfolds like a giant rose in the springtime, blanketing the dreary winter hillside with waves of vibrant color. For the area’s residents, the March Bank is the true harbinger of spring. It’s always worth a visit just to witness the joyous arrival of the tiny woodland flowers.

About the March Bank

The brainchild of Henry Francis du Pont, founder of Winterthur, the March Bank is considered the crown jewel of the estate’s 60-acre garden.  Covering the slope of a ravine, it is replanted every year with over 70,000 early blooming bulbs. As the plants emerge, the succession of blooms passes from bright whites and yellows to a medley of deep purples and blues. The show culminates when all of the flowers weave together to carpet the woodlands. 

Announcing the show’s arrival are Winterthur Gardens’ many witch hazels that begin flowering in early February. Two of my favorite specimens as a child were a pair that after a century of growth had achieved tree-like forms. Located on the corner of the glass Visitors Pavilion, one bloomed fiery red and and the other gold. Their twisted branches interwove with each other and wrapped around the sides of the building.

witch hazel blooms in February

Witch Hazel

But, it is the March Bank that truly captured my interest.

Emerging in late February, the bank slowly erupts with thousands of tiny flowers. Milky white snowdrops intermix with bright yellow winter aconites to form a sunny display. The blossoms travel across the woods, spilling downwards through the ravine where they are joined by purple and lavender crocuses. 

snowdrops and aconites

Snowdrops and aconites

Aconites join crocuses in a spring mix

This yellow/purple phase is followed by a blue phase, during which new hues are painted on the hillside. The bright yellows fade to make way for a medley of pale blue glory-of-the-snow and the deeper blue squill, with its drooping, bell-like flowers.

Pale blue Glory-of-the Snow

Finally, thousands of tiny purple windflowers, miniature yellow daffodils and white and lavender crocus called Tommies emerge to join the composition. Overhead, the first yellow flowers of the multi-stemmed Japanese cornelian cherry are just beginning to bloom.

By the end of the month, the March Bank is in full splendor. For as far as the eye can see, the woodlands are carpeted with millions of tiny flowers. A sea of blue and purple blankets the hillside and cascades down the ravine into the glen. The bank reaches its peak when millions of blue squill, glory-of-the-snow, white bloodroot and windflowers achieve full flower.

The Bank is replanted each year just as du Pont directed during his lifetime. What was begun by gardeners in 1902 has self-seeded over the decades and spread to become acres of color.

images-6How to design your own mini March Bank

While most of us don’t own 60-acre gardens, we can still incorporate the traditions of the March Bank into our landscapes.  In my own yard, I have experimented over the years with planting ever increasing amounts of early blooming bulbs right into the lawn in late fall. In the spring, I am rewarded with waves of color that wash across my property.

In addition to snowdrops and aconites, I plant miniature daffodils, which work best with the low-to-the-ground scale. I’m also partial to the purple windflower, that emerges like a blue carpet on the fresh green grass. You must hold off on mowing your lawn, though, until the foliage has ripened so that the plants can scatter their seed and become food for next year’s flowers. Or mow high, since the average height of the bulbs is under 4 inches.

All of these bulbs come in just the right tones for spring: blue, lavender, yellow and white, proving once again that nature always knows best.

For an excellent source on how to create your own woodland carpet of flowers, check out “Carpet A Woodland in Bulbs.” In this detailed article, an accomplished Delaware gardener provides insights on suitable bulbs, their characteristics and bloom times, and how to combine them for maximum effect.

Images: gardenblog.winterthur.org


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