Springtime Perennials

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When we hear the word perennial, most of us immediately think of such showy summertime plants as peonies, delphiniums and irises. But there are a whole range of spring perennials that reward us with their cheerful flowers at the same time the spring bulbs are blooming. And the wonderful thing about these lovely blooms is that their flowering season is longer than that of most bulbs, due to the coolness of the weather at this time of year. Perhaps one of the best-known genera of early-flowering perennials is the hellebores. Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, comes to us from Europe. It has dark-green, leathery pedate leaves about five to 20 centimetres in length that consist of seven to nine lance-shaped leaflets. The magic of this plant is that it produces strong, purplish stems bearing pure-white, saucer-shaped blossoms up to eight centimetres across from mid-December to April, depending on where you live. The Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) is native to northeastern Greece through to the Caucasus Mountains. It sports similarly shaped leaves that tend to be lighter, on longer stems up to 40 centimetres. It blooms a little later, with several flowers per stem. Each pendant flower grows up to eight centimetres across, ranging in colour from greenish-white when young to pink with age. Much hybridizing has been carried out in recent years and there are many beautiful colour forms to choose from. However, if I only had garden space for one hellebore, it would be Helleborus foetidus. Those of you familiar with Latin will know that foetidus translates into “stinking,” hence the common name, stinking hellebore. But don’t let the name put you off, as the smell only occurs when the stem is crushed. This incredible, erect perennial comes to us from western and central Europe. It has a longish, smooth stem with a collar of typically shaped hellebore leaves, the only difference being that these are toothed along the edges. Out of the centre of the leaves comes a head of many nodding, bell-shaped, apple-green flowers, sometimes edged with a reddish margin and often quite sweetly scented. In mid-December, I always take a walk over to our winter garden here at UBC to check the newly forming bright-green buds on this plant. By the latter part of January, I know that no matter what the weather, these plants will be in full bloom. And even after the stamens have dropped, the green bracts stay showy right through May and beyond, providing a perfect foil for the bright-yellow daffodils. Another point definitely worth mentioning is that this particular hellebore thrives in dry shade under deciduous trees and shrubs. It also seeds itself about quite freely. Another of my favourite spring perennials is lungwort, a delightful genus known to man for centuries and used as a medicinal plant for treatment of lung disorders. My top pick of these is Pulmonaria angustifolia, which is native to the mountainous regions of France right through to the Baltic. The funnel-shaped flowers are the deepest true blue, borne in clusters on short 20-centimetre stems and occurring during the March to May period, depending on where you live in the province. However, one of this plant’s great attributes is its hardiness; it can withstand temperatures to –20°C and tolerate almost any soil conditions. Because of its early flowering time it should be planted in an area of your garden that is visible from a favourite chair inside your home. Pulmonarias have also been hybridized and selected quite a bit in recent years, and to date the Royal Horticultural Society lists about 200. But as far as true blue goes, P. angustifolia remains closest to my heart.Leopard’s bane or Doronicum is another of those wonderful old-fashioned early perennials that has fallen out of vogue. Again, there are several varieties to choose from, but probably the most reliable is Doronicum columnae ‘Miss Mason.’ The origin of this clump-forming perennial is in the mountains of southern and eastern Europe. The foliage is attractive and particularly welcome so early in the year. They grow up to eight centimetres in length and are nicely heart-shaped. On the slender flower stems there are smaller lance-shaped leaves. When the flower stem reaches its mature height of 12 to 60 centimetres, it is crowned by a beautiful sunshine-yellow daisy measuring seven centimetres across. This plant produces many stems, making it a very showy early perennial. It prefers to be grown in full sunlight and makes good company for bright-orange tulips. Finding a spring perennial that is more tolerant of shady conditions is a bit more of a challenge. However, some members of the primula family do very well. One of the earliest and hardiest is Primula denticulata (drumstick primrose). Its thick 45-centimetre stems are topped with crowded spherical umbels of tubular to bell-shaped purple flowers, each one with a bright-yellow eye. The flower stems come from a robust rosette of typically primrose-shaped leaves up to 25 centimetres in length. The undersides of these leaves are coated with a grey, mealy farina that also occurs on the flower stem, giving this primula an almost ethereal look, especially when planted in large clumps. We have some specimens in the Asian Garden at UBC that grow in an area often waterlogged during our heavy winter rains. But by far one of the prettiest local plantings I have seen of P. denticulata is in the Sino Himalayan section at VanDusen Botanical Garden. There, it underplants Rhododendron augustinii, which blooms at the same time and echoes the flower colour of the primulas. It is pure magic, and well worth a visit during the month of April. For drier conditions, you may want to consider the Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), which comes to us from Europe, although it often gets confused with its North American relative, the prairie crocus. Early in the spring, little silvery buds appear out of the ground, these being the Pasque flower’s fine carrot-like foliage, which expands to become more green as the plant develops, eventually reaching a length of about 15 centimetres. From the centre of these clumps, many flower stems appear, climbing up to 30 centimetres in height, carrying single, nodding, large, dark-purple flowers that when open span five centimetres across with brilliant-yellow stamens in the centre. A true joy to behold so early in the spring. Even when the flowers have faded, the seed-heads resemble those of a large, fluffy clematis. (Little wonder, since they belong to the same plant family, Ranunculaceae.) These heads stay showy right through to summer. If you prefer other colours, white and red forms are also available. These are but a few of the beautiful spring perennials that can add interest to your garden during the early part of the season, no matter where in B.C. you live. David Tarrant is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of Spring, currently on HGTV.