Early Spring Colour
March is a time of optimism for gardeners. We never know what the rest of the year is going to bring, but at least spring flowers give us hope that it might, just, be glorious. Besides daffodils and crocuses, which pepper our lawns and borders, early blooming perennials are beginning to bring colour in to the garden.
Most early flowering perennials thrive in areas that later in the year will be shaded by leaves. This means flowers need to be produced before plants in sunnier and warmer parts of the garden distract pollinating insects. Once the canopy of leaves fills out on trees and shrubs these spring flowering plants will take a back seat for the rest of the year.
The best-known woodlanders are Hellebores, Bergenias and Pulmonarias. They are all useful for growing in north facing borders, and for carpeting under taller shrubs and trees. As a child I can vividly recall drifts of deep blue Pulmonarias (Lungworts) under a flowering cherry. Pulmonarias reached the peak of popularity during the 1990’s when hundreds of new varieties were introduced. Many of these are no longer available, but Pulmonaria officinalis ‘Opal’ has stood the test of time.This is one of my favorites plants. It produces sprays of soft pearly blue flowers that contrast handsomely against a thick clump of oval, mid-green, white spotted leaves. Combine this with Bergenia ‘Eric Smith’ or any other Bergenia with soft pink flowers and you have a wonderful evergreen combination.
Not all woodlanders are evergreen. Omphalodes verna, (Navelwort) forms a low, spreading carpet of deciduous, mid-green oval leaves with short sprays of bright blue, forget-me-not sized flowers. Like Pulmonarias this looks wonderful under shrubs. As does our wild primrose, Primula vulgaris. Let is set seed and this will gradually scatter itself around forming green rosettes that are filled with a dome of soft lemon flowers for weeks. There are other forms worth a try, some of which have double flowers. I particularly like the peach coloured blooms of Primula ‘Sue Jervis’. This was discovered growing in woods along Wenlock Edge in Shropshire, my native county.
Violas are another spring flowering native. I have a form of Viola odorata that has been in bloom since January. It grows in a warm border along the house, but it is a rather diminutive plant unlike the more substantial Viola sororia ‘Freckles’ (the Sister Violet). This forms domes of deep green leaves with large white flowers that are intriguingly speckled with lilac dots.
Some spring flowering perennials come from damp meadows where they need to bloom before the warm summer months dry out the soil. This includes Geum rivale, our native Avens, and it’s wonderful variations. Despite being a wetland plant these Geums will happily grow in most soils that retain some moisture and even if they wilt in hot weather a dosing of water soon revives them. All have evergreen foliage and short bronzy stems that carry bell shaped flowers that demurely hang down. I particularly like Geum ‘Lemon Drops’ with soft yellow flowers, G. ‘Marmalade’ with soft orange flowers and Geum ‘Bell Bank’ for it’s frilly, apricot pink flowers that don’t droop so much.
A less commonly grown spring delight and a member of the pea family is Lathyrus vernus (Spring pea). A short, neat plant it gives me joy from the minute I spy the crowded centre of flower buds begin to emerge in February until they unfurling in March into small, violet flowers
. An extremely tolerant, long-lived and trouble free plant, it is ideal for small gardens.
Finally I have to mention the bright yellow, salad rocket shaped leaves of Valariana phu ‘Aurea’, which is a winner when planted with blue muscari (grape hyacinths). Like all summer flowering plants with sumptuous spring leaves, the display does not end there. As spring turns to summer the leaves mellow to soft green and short stems topped with umbrellas of heavily honey-scented white flowers emerge enticing us to think forward to warm days to come.