Where blooms first blush

Hartford to Nantucket, acres of urgent flowers declare spring is here

Daffodil Days are on at Blithewold Mansion in Bristol, R.I. Daffodil Days are on at Blithewold Mansion in Bristol, R.I. (BLITHEWOLD MANSION, GARDENS AND ARBORETUM)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / April 12, 2009
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Fall foliage gets all the attention here in New England, but we confess that some of our most memorable drives have been in the spring bloom season: apple blossom petals blowing across the highway in Bolton like a blizzard, dense yellow lines of daffodils along the country roads of Falmouth, the overwhelming aroma of grape Kool-Aid from hillsides of dazzling mountain laurel in the southern Berkshires.

Spring and early summer blooms are a great restorative after a grinding winter, and enjoying them doesn't have to be left to chance. There are mass plantings all over the region where one flower or another shows off its bloom power to the max.

The mass spectacle of daffodils begins in southern New England where little Nantucket must claim more daffodils per square inch than any community. Between early April and mid-May, more than 3 million daffodils bloom in Nantucket village and all along Milestone Road to Siasconset. During the 35th Nantucket Daffodil Festival on the last weekend of April, islanders pull out all the stops, decorating antique cars with blossoms, and holding the annual daffodil hat pageant. The "gray lady in the sea" glows glorious yellow. April 24-26. Free.

That same weekend, Meriden, Conn., celebrates its 31st annual Daffodil Festival at 1,800-acre Hubbard Park. The spectacle of an estimated 600,000 daffodils is impressive, to say the least, and every year the city plants more bulbs. The festival includes craft and food booths, amusement rides, live entertainment, and even a fireworks display. "Either you love it or you get out of town," says Jane Earnest, secretary of the volunteer committee that organizes the festival. Hubbard Park. April 25-26. Free.

Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum stretches its celebration of the early bloom with Daffodil Days from yesterday through May 3. The 1908 mansion in Bristol, R.I., overlooks 33 acres of gardens and sweeping fields that lead down to Narragansett Bay. 101 Ferry Road, 401-253-2707, Through May 3. Adults $10, seniors and students $8, under age 17 $2.

A special celebration just wouldn't be fitting at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Saco, Maine, a much more contemplative place. Incorporated in 1844, Laurel Hill, like Mount Auburn in Cambridge and Forest Hills in Boston, is a pioneer of the garden cemetery movement.

If You Go

Superintendent Bill Tate notes that the cemetery's 14,000 daffodils bloom from late April into May, and many are planted on the hill above the Saco River. "They bloom right during prom season," says Tate, "and the kids come here in their tuxes and gowns to take pictures. Nursing homes bring people through in minivans, and you have artists setting up down by the river to paint the flowers and the river." 293 Beach St., 207-282-9351. Daily dawn to dusk. Free.

We finally got an idea why daffodils are so ubiquitous when we spoke with Michael Arnum, public relations director at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. "Deer eat tulips," he said, "but they don't like daffodils." The garden has up to 20,000 daffodils in bloom on Arbor Day Weekend (April 24-26). Visit a week to 10 days later, and the 238-tree orchard of the Davenport Collection of Heirloom Apple Varieties explodes with sweet pink and white blossoms. "You get a warm day," says Arnum, "and they really open up." 11 French Drive, 508-869-6111, April 24-26. Adults $10, seniors $7, ages 6-18 $5.

Maybe the biggest bloom celebration in Boston takes place on Mother's Day, May 10, when the Arnold Arboretum will hold the 101st Lilac Sunday. Few collections in the world rival the arboretum's 20 species and their botanical varieties, including more than 150 named cultivars. Lilacs bloom profusely over a five-week period, with the peak bloom during the second through fourth weeks of May. If you've ever wanted to picnic on the grounds, Lilac Sunday is your chance - the only day of the year it's allowed. 125 Arborway, 617-524-1718, Grounds daily sunrise-sunset. Free.

Lilacs also bloom abundantly on the grounds of the Shelburne Museum in northern Vermont. The museum's opening day, May 17, is designated as Lilac and Gardening Sunday. Spokeswoman Leslie Wright predicts they will be out in full force. The museum's grounds include 400 lilac shrubs in 90 varieties that span the spectrum from pure white to deep, well, lilac. "For us in Vermont," says Wright, "we're color- and sense-deprived. The lilac bloom is heady - we're so happy to see color." US Route 7, Shelburne, Vt., 802-985-3346, Adults $20, teachers and students over 18 $18, ages 4-18 $10.

If color is your aim, don't miss the Dexter rhododendrons at Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich. Textile manufacturer Charles Owen Dexter bought the estate in 1921. Told by his doctor that he didn't have long to live, he turned to hybridizing plants, with a special interest in rhododendrons. His doctor apparently misjudged; Dexter kept at the process for another 22 years, producing some of the earliest-blooming, most colorful, and most cold-resistant rhododendrons known. Some of his original shrubs still grow on the property as towering trees, bursting forth in pinks, reds, purples, and even yellows.

Peak bloom begins around Memorial Day weekend, but "the first week of June is absolute perfection," says Judith Selleck, director of marketing. Heritage marks Gardeners' Day on May 30 with gardening demonstrations, a plant sale, and a rare rhododendron auction. 67 Grove St., 508-888-3300, Adults $12, seniors $11, ages 4-12 $6.

Summer makes a dramatic entrance on June 20-21 when the Elizabeth Park Rose Weekend in Hartford celebrates the full bloom of 15,000 rose bushes. The historic garden, established in 1904, also serves as the backdrop for the Connecticut Rose Society's Annual Rose Show in Pond House Hall. Prospect and Asylum avenues, Hartford-West Hartford, 860-231-9443, Free.

If spring blossoms and summer's debut sneak past you, there's still the mass floral sensation of the mid-to-late July bloom of the towering shrub-trees and dense thickets of rhododendrons at New Hampshire's Rhododendron State Park. The giant rhododendrons (also known as rosebay rhododendron) are later bloomers than the commercial hybrid rhododendrons that people have in their yards, explains park manager Patrick Hummel.

The giants are also pretty tough. December's ice storm caused some severe damage in the park, Hummel says, "but the rhododendron grove made out pretty well." Route 119 West, Fitzwilliam, N.H., 603-532-8862 (at Monadnock State Park), Donation.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at