By: Russell Stafford
Eastern U.S. gardeners in search of spring color can find plenty of inspiration and possibilities right here at home. Many of the wildflowers that brighten our fields and forests in spring also make wonderful and easy garden plants (and quite a few of them are available from reputable plant and seed merchants).
Among the earliest and most exquisite wildflowers are the hepaticas, two of which occur in woodlands throughout eastern and central North America. Both round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica americana) and sharp-leaved hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) grow into dainty clumps of leathery, semi-evergreen, three-lobed leaves that are often strikingly marbled with contrasting hues. The blue (or sometimes pink or white), starry flowers face up from erect, somewhat furry stems in earliest spring. Hepaticas are lovely in a partly shaded garden niche protected from the encroachment of larger, more rampant plants. If they’re in a place where passersby can easily admire their early-season display, so much the better. Some botanists place all hepaticas in the genus Anemone, but horticulturists and gardeners will no doubt continue to use the traditional name.
The delicate white flowers and broad, lobed, bluish green leaves of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) arise soon after the hepaticas come into bloom, with the flowers usually shattering seemingly hours after opening. The spellbinding double blooms of the cultivar ‘Multiplex’, however, keep their exotic beauty for a week or more, looking for all the world like ruffled waterlilies. This is one of those plants that once seen, must be possessed. Native to moist woodlands over much of North America, bloodroot does best in humus-rich soil and partial shade. For this, and many other spring wildflowers, we suggest amending wooded beds with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.
For mid-spring display, almost any garden planting could benefit from a few native Phlox. Wild sweet William, Phlox divaricata, is among the most essential. Its sprays of five-petaled, lilac-blue (but occasionally white, purple, or pink) flowers on foot-tall stems spangle woodlands from Quebec to Texas in early or mid-spring. Plants self-sow readily in partly shaded, moist habitats, both in the wild and in the garden. Another eastern U.S. woodlander, Phlox stolonifera, lifts its flower clusters on 8-inch stems about a week after Phlox divaricata commences bloom. Flowers vary in hue, with ‘Bruce’s White’, ‘Blue Ridge’, ‘Sherwood Purple’, and the lilac-pink ‘Home Fires’ representing some of the color range. The species’ common name, creeping phlox, refers to the ground-hugging mats of spoon-shaped, evergreen leaves, which spread rather rapidly in moist acid soil and partial shade.
Other phlox, including the Eastern and Midwestern native Phlox subulata, favor harsher, sunnier niches. Moss phlox’s adaptability to arid, sun-parched sites has made it something of a cliché in challenging suburban habitats such as traffic medians and gas station islands. It’s equally well suited, however, for naturalistic “habitat garden” plantings, where its needle-like foliage and colorful early spring blooms combine splendidly with other tough, sun-loving U.S. natives such as bearberry, little bluestem, Missouri primrose, lowbush blueberry, prickly pear, and purple lovegrass. Numerous cultivars of moss phlox are available, flowering in a rainbow of colors from lavender to pink to white. Gardeners looking for a less ubiquitous needle-leaved species might want to consider sand phlox (Phlox bifida), a Plains native whose petals are elegantly cleft into narrow lobes.
Among the best companions for woodland phlox is celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, which inhabits fertile woodlands throughout much of the East and Midwest. Its bright yellow, mid-spring “poppies” on 15-inch plants provide a splashy contrast to the blues of Phlox divaricata and Phlox stolonifera, and its bold, deeply lobed leaves complement their relatively dainty foliage. Both celandine poppy and Phlox divaricata self-sow moderately in partial shade, making them a perfect pair for naturalizing together.
They also form a perfect trio with Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, named for its baby-blue flowers (opening from soft pink buds) that indeed resemble tiny hand bells. The flowers are borne in coiled clusters that elongate on 16-inch stems in late April and May. Prolific self-sowing can occur in moist, partly shaded sites. The large, tongue shaped leaves of this New York to Kansas native die back early summer, as does celandine poppy’s foliage.
All the above, and many more native plants besides, offer both beautiful blooms and a connection to this place we call home, with little or no fuss involved. What more could a North American gardener want?
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