1. By: Russell Stafford

    April 2007 064

    Spring Virginia bluebells blanket a woodland garden floor.

     

    America’s native plants are a national treasure.  They also offer a wealth of material for American gardens.  This is perhaps most evident in spring, when many of the most beautiful native wildflowers strut their stuff in our fields, forests, and perennial borders.

    Celandine poppies add a golden glow to the spring wildflower garden.

    Celandine poppies add a golden glow to the spring wildflower garden.

    Bloodroot

    Among the first of these to bloom is one of the queens of the Eastern forest, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  Its broad, scalloped, kidney-shaped leaves unfurl in early spring, sending forth dainty, white, short-stemmed flowers that shatter within a few days of opening .  Far longer lasting, however, are the breathtaking double blooms of the cultivar ‘Multiplex’, whose sublime form would do the finest waterlily proud.  In whatever form, bloodroot makes a wonderful subject for massing and naturalizing in dappled shade.  A moist, relatively coarse soil suits it best (amend heavy or sandy soils with a good compost such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost).

    Virginia Bluebells

    Another first-rate naturalizer for moist shade, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) sends up clusters of nodding, long-necked bell-flowers that morph from pale pink to summer-sky-blue upon opening in early- to mid-spring.  The 15- to 18-inch-tall plants are well furnished with broad, blue-dusted leaves that tone prettily with the flowers.  As bloom fades, so does the rest of the plant, yellowing and dwindling to a thick fleshy rootstock in late spring.  Colonies of seedlings often follow.  Wild-collected roots and plants of Virginia bluebell are sometimes sold by disreputable dealers, so buyer beware.

    April 2007 067

    Virginia bluebells have great color and naturalize effortlessly.

    Celandine Poppy

    With its sunny yellow mid-spring flowers and penchant for self-sowing, celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) makes an excellent shade-garden companion for Virginia bluebells.  The 2-inch-wide, crepe-textured, four-petaled poppies are borne atop 18-inch clumps of bold foliage with oakleaf-shaped lobes.  Bristly seedpods resembling miniature gourds ripen in late spring, with dormancy (and enthusiastic self-sowing) ensuing.  Both celandine poppy and Virginia bluebells work well with other, more persistent woodlanders (such as ferns and Solomon’s seal) that fill the gaps left by their early exit.

    Woodland Phlox

    Although many native woodland perennials die back after blooming in spring, some stay around for the long haul.  These include two species of Phlox that make excellent subjects for borders or naturalistic plantings.  Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricarta) produces drifts of fragrant, five-petaled blooms on wiry, foot-tall stems with paired, pointed leaves. The flowers are typically periwinkle-blue, but white, violet, and other colors occur in the wild and in cultivation.  Their form and hue combine effectively with Virginia bluebells, celandine poppy, white trilliums, wild geraniums, and other wildflowers that bloom in mid-spring.  After flowering, plants persist through the growing season and beyond as low semi-evergreen hummocks.

    Phlox divaricata andrews 51008d

    Pretty starry flowers decorate Phlox divaricata ‘in spring.

    Creeping Phlox

    Named for its low spreading mats of rounded evergreen leaves, creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) produces compact clusters of blue, purple, or white flowers about a week after woodland phlox commences bloom.   Although best in partial shade, it does well in full sun in cool moist sites, and makes a great “knitter” for interplanting with taller perennials.

    Barren Strawberry

    Also excelling as a mat-forming spreader is barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides).  Its low, weed-smothering carpets of three-lobed, semi-evergreen leaves do indeed suggest strawberry foliage, but of a more refined nature.  Yellow, five-lobed buttercups nestle in the leafage in mid-spring, maturing to dry, inedible fruit capsules.  An outstanding but little-known ground cover for partial shade, it tolerates considerable drought once established.

    The delicate wood geranium (Geranium maculatum) blooms towards late spring.

    The delicate wood geranium (Geranium maculatum) blooms towards late spring.

    Crested Iris

    Yet another splendid spreader for partial shade, crested iris (Iris cristata) grows from knobbly rhizomes that walk along the soil surface, like a bearded iris in miniature.  Fanned tufts of arching, 6-inch, blade-shaped leaves give rise to proportionately large blooms that slightly over top the foliage in mid-spring.  Flower color ranges from violet-blue to white, with contrasting yellow and white markings.   Several cultivars are available.  A lightly shaded site with moist, fertile, relatively porous soil is ideal.

    All of these – and many more besides (including Geranium maculatum, Hepatica acutiloba, Trillium grandiflorum, Delphinium tricorne, Tiarella cordifolia, Polemonium reptans, and Uvularia grandiflora) – are essential plants for any eastern North American garden that seeks to embody a sense of place.

    About Russell Stafford


    Hortiholic and plant evangelist Russell Stafford transplanted his first perennial at age 7, and thereby began a lifelong addiction. He is founder, owner, webmaster, nursery manager, propagator, shipping and telemarketing supervisor, data entry specialist, custodian, and all other positions at Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an on-line micronursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. He also works as a plantsman and horticultural consultant specializing in the naturalistic and the obscure, and as a freelance writer and editor. He formerly served as curator and head of horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan; as horticultural program coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation (then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts); and in various other horticultural capacities. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University. He lives, works, and plays with plants in South Lancaster, Massachusetts. Russell is a former editor at www.learn2grow.com and a frequent contributor to gardening magazines including Horticulture and The American Gardener.

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