Growing up in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley, I looked forward each year to the first blossoms poking their tiny heads out of the cold 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 sweeps of vibrant color. For the area’s residents, the March Bank is the true harbinger of spring and always worth a visit just to witness the joyous arrival of the tiny woodland flowers.
The brainchild of Henry Francis du Pont, who founded Winterthur and Winterthur Gardens, the March Bank is considered the crown jewel of the estate’s 60-acre naturalistic garden. Covering the hillside of a ravine, it is replanted each year with over 70,000 early blooming bulbs. As the plants emerge, the staged succession of blooms passes from snowy whites and bright yellows to a medley of blues and purples. The colorful show culminates in a symphony of colors in nature’s preferred spring palette of white, yellow, lavender and blue.
Announcing the arrival of the show are Winterthur Gardens’ numerous witch-hazels that begin to flower in early February. Two of my favorite overgrown 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, they bloomed fiery red and gold on smooth grey-brown bark and their crooked branches delicately embraced the building.
But, it is the March Bank that truly captured my interest.
Emerging with quiet dignity in late February out of the somber grey brown earth, the bank is resplendent with thousands of milky white snowdrops and bright yellow winter aconites and adonis. The tiny blossoms unroll like a carpet across the woods, spilling downwards through the ravine where they are later joined by purple and lavender crocuses. The shrubby forms of cornelian cherry dogwoods punctuate the space, their bright yellow flowers emerging ahead of the leaf in dense, rounded clusters of spring color.
After this initial ‘yellow/purple phase’, the March Bank enters into its ‘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. Thousands of tiny purple windflowers, miniature yellow daffodils and white and lavender crocus tomasinianus “Tommies” accent the artistic 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.
While most of us don’t have 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 tiny, early blooming bulbs right into the lawn in late fall. In the spring, I am rewarded with splashes 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, which pops with color as it emerges out of the bright green grass. The only caveat is that you must hold off mowing your lawn 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.