Now that spring has arrived, delightful thoughts come to mind as I think of the magnificent plants that illuminate the garden. I love large shrubs that take center stage but I also adore those early perennials and minor bulbs that brighten smaller spaces. These are ones that are not grown as often, those rarer jewels that need to be lauded. I do not have as many as I would like but some of those that I do grow, I want to sing their praises.
One of the first to break the ground is Ranunculus ficaria “Brazen Hussy,” a plant I first saw when visiting a garden in eastern Virginia. This deer-resistant spring perennial emerges with glossy dark burgundy foliage that contrasts well with the cheerful daffodil-yellow flowers. The stark contrast between the foliage and the flowers sets this plant apart and makes it stand out from a distance. I have had it for about 10 years and it comes back each February like clockwork and then it disappears, as the temperatures get warmer. I have read it is invasive but I still have the two plants that I purchased from Plants Delights and it is not invasive where I have them growing.
Bloodroot, (Sanguinaria) is a charming woodland plant that emerges and quickly shows off white flowers that stand out against the brown leaf litter. I also am attracted to the shape of the leaves and find them to be quite attractive and interesting. The leaves grow larger as the summer progresses, sporting deeply cut lobes that are quite eye-catching. This is a North American woodland perennial that is called bloodroot because it has a red sap that oozes from the roots when cut. Native American basket makers used the sap as a source of red dye. However, they did not use it as face paint because it is toxic if rubbed onto the skin.
Many of my gardening friends grow Virginia Bluebells, (Mertensia virginica), a cherished native that delights us in spring with nodding clusters of pink buds that open to sky blue flowers. These charming bell-shaped flowers have cool, soft green foliage making a beautiful display in a shaded area of the garden. You need to enjoy them quickly because as the flowers fade, so does the foliage and, before you know it, they disappear and go dormant until the following spring.
Brunnera has also become a favorite of mine for the shade garden. This trouble-free plant has dainty blue flowers that resemble forget-me-nots. The flowers stand high above the foliage on thin stems that sway in a gentle breeze. The one I grow is called Brunnera “Jack Frost” and was chosen the perennial of the year in 2012 by the Perennial Plant Association. This hardy plant is grown not only for the flowers but also for the veined heart-shaped leaves that are green and white and, if it does not get too hot and dry, they look pretty all summer long. My husband thinks these leaves are caladiums leaves in the summer, a plant he wants me to grow. I do not tell him that those variegated showy leaves are not what he thinks. What he does not know will not hurt him.
Phlox divaricata, a perennial with delightful blue or white flowers, is another woodland native which forms mats of foliage with stems that typically reach 12 inches tall. My friend Pat Burton introduced me to this plant and told me to be sure and purchase the variety called “Blue Moon.” It is a lovely native phlox groundcover featuring clouds of rich violet-blue blooms that float above green foliage. It has a slight fragrance to wake up one’s senses, and it flowers in March and April where I live. It is a perfect addition to a rock garden or any shady spot where it can slowly naturalize. I have it by a stream and I am hoping that one day, the mats will become large enough that they drape over the rocks lining the stream.
If you like to plant bulbs or corms, you should try planting Erythronium, which is also called Trout Lilies or Dogtooth Violet. I grow one called “Pagoda” which bears graceful sulfur yellow flowers with a reddish-brown ring at the center. The flower is shaped like a tiny lily and the leaves are a beautiful bright green. I grow mine in part shade with rich woodsy soil. These deer and rodent resistant plants only last for a short time because, by late May, the Dogtooth Lilies have gone dormant for the summer.
Think about planting some to brighten up a small space where you want a little something extra. Many of them are called spring ephemerals because the plants last only a brief time. They bloom and die back and go dormant and disappear from view shortly after they stop flowering. I enjoy them and I hope I always have a place for a few in the garden. These early charmers are a joy to grow.
Betty Montgomery is a master gardener and author of “Hydrangeas: How To Grow, Cultivate & Enjoy,” and “A Four-Season Southern Garden.” She can be reached at email@example.com.