By Liz Nye, New England Botanic Garden Staff
April 2023

There’s nothing quite as cheer-inducing as finding the sunny blooms of winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) suddenly dotting an otherwise dreary late winter garden. Well into March, these buttercup relatives in the Ranunculaceae family continue to pop up and, if allowed to spread, form a colony of happy looking yellow-orange blossoms. Paired with the lengthening days, the year’s first flowers have the power to prompt a major shift in perspective for many people. Winter is now in the rearview—for the most part.  

But despite how it can feel, spring’s early blooming plants don’t come into flower simply to fill us humans with joy. These plants are opportunists, and now is their moment. All across New England’s gardens, forests, wetlands, and meadows, the plants leading the charge into spring possess enterprising adaptations that enable them to make the most of the warmer temperatures and the increasing amount of light energy available from the sun. While other plants are still dormant, the earliest of spring’s early flowering plants get a head start. 

group of white snow drops

Snowdrops (Galanthus)

Anti-Freeze Flowers
Snowdrops (Galanthus) are among the many early bloomers synonymous with spring in New England, despite being non-native to the region. These bulbous perennials, widely planted in gardens alongside crocuses and daffodils, originate in the high-altitude environments of Europe and southwestern Asia. Their nodding white flowers and wispy green foliage only look delicate. Essentially alpine plants, snowdrops are well equipped to face the cold thanks to proteins in their tissues that protect their cells from damage. This adaptation, shared by overwintering plants and some animals like wood frogs, works like a natural antifreeze. Snowdrop flowers, which can emerge and bloom in February, persist for several weeks despite lingering snow, ice, and below freezing temperatures. Even if hit with a late winter storm, these resilient plants don’t stay down long.  

skunk cabbage blooming through dead leaves

Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

Built-in Heaters
While snowdrops are busy withstanding the cold, other plants have what it takes to bring about the thaw. March in New England means sk