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Harbingers of spring jumpstart our green thumbs into another growing season

Pity the poor Atlantic Canadian gardener. We go through the winter and well into spring before we can really get out and garden; cleaning up the beds, adding compost, pruning shrubs, and preparing to plant our kitchen gardens, flowering containers, and all those new plants we read about all winter and are now dying to try. Often, we still have snow covering our beds throughout March, and who can forget last year’s winter and spring of our gardening discontent, when some gardeners still had snow well into May? I’m optimistic that it won’t be that bad this year. Hopefully.

To be a gardening enthusiast in our region, you have to have a bundle of coping mechanisms to ward away our (seemingly) endless Atlantic winters. If we are ahead of the game, we planted spring-flowering bulbs last autumn, and have also incorporated a variety of early-blooming perennials and shrubs into our plantings. There are species that are barely out of the ground before they are popping into bloom, and some even have to be reined a little to keep them from trying to bloom too early in the season.

A fleeting spring beauty

Among some of the plants discussed below, you’ll see references to “spring ephemeral.” While most flowering perennials grow throughout the gardening season even if they only bloom for one part of it, spring ephemerals emerge, put on their show, and quietly fade into dormancy after they’ve finished flowering. Many are native plants that grow and flower in spring woodlands. Once the hardwoods leaf out and shade them too much, they go dormant. You can safely plant suitable ephemerals in your garden—just remember to mark well where you’ve put them so you don’t inadvertently plant something else on top of dormant perennials.

The spring-flowering pulmonaria species are hardly out of the ground before they’re blooming.

Beyond bulbs, past the pansies

Not everyone haunts garden centres and nurseries from the day they open in April until the end of the season. As a result, many gardeners miss out on some fabulous early-season plant species, especially since some may be past their peak bloom when you find them at nurseries, because they bloom earlier in containers than they do when planted. Do yourself a favour and invest in some of the early bloomers included here for future springs. You won’t be disappointed.

Anemone. As with other genera of plants, different species of anemones bloom at different seasons. The spring-flowering varieties come in white, yellow, lavender-blue and red, and most are clump-forming types that don’t try to take over. Avoid Anemone canadensis, which spreads with too much enthusiasm, unless you have an area under trees that you want to cover and not have to mow or weed. Look for ‘Vestal’, a white double-flowered form that is unusual and gorgeous.

Bergenia. You have to love a plant with the common name of pigsqueak, so called because its fleshy leaves squeak if rubbed together. Another name for this early bloomer is elephant-ear saxifrage. It produces stems of nodding, petite but showy flowers in white, shades of pink or red. There are several cultivars now available that have gold, bronze, or variegated foliage, very attractive when grown with blue-flowered bulbs like scilla or grape hyacinth.

Brunnera. The heart-shaped leaves of this relative of forget-me-nots and pulmonarias are as much a desirable feature of the plant as its true blue flowers. Brunnera leaves can be lightly variegated or richly spangled in silver, white or yellow markings against a soft-green background. One of the most reliable is ‘Jack Frost’, while ‘Alexander the Great’ has huge leaves as big as those of a good-sized hosta.

Caltha. Marsh marigold is a wonderful native plant that deserves to be in any garden having a good moist area. The single or double, buttercup-yellow flowers are a real harbinger of spring in our region, blooming from mid-April until well into June, and often repeat flowering later in the season as well.

Epimedium. Bishop’s cap or barrenwort is a personal favourite spring perennial, and once you’ve seen it growing well, you’ll know why. Heart-shaped leaves touched with a red or bronze tint produce delicate sprays of petite, spurred flowers in shades of red, orange, yellow, rose, or pristine white. The plants will gradually spread, and look wonderful planted with mid- to late-blooming species of daffodils, primulas, and pulmonarias.

Erica. Spring heath is closely related to summer-flowering heather, and both rhododendron relatives are beloved by pollinators of all sorts. Heath foliage is attractive and many varieties change colour during winter. Flowers of heath can be white or various shades of pink/purple. They like good drainage and protection from the worst of winter winds, but when happy will spread into large, low-growing mats of colour.

Gentiana. For those who love blue flowers but are driven to distraction trying to grow the glorious blue poppy (Meconopsis), consider growing gentians instead. They come in a rich array of sizes and bloom times, from early spring until well into autumn, depending on species. As the name suggests, most are a rich gentian blue. Spring choices include the sublime G. acaulis, which is well suited for a rock garden. You can see excellent plantings at the rock garden at the Dalhousie Agriculture Campus in Truro, NS.

Helleborus. Hellebores are commonly called Christmas or Lenten roses, although they are not related to roses. They are fantastic, early blooming perennials with a long, long period of blooming because the flowers are surrounded with colourful sepals that resemble flower petals—think of the red ‘petals’ of a poinsettia and you’ll understand. I mulch mine after a hard freeze around Christmastime and keep them covered until late March so that temperature fluctuations don’t start them trying to bloom too early. Plant breeders have developed many gorgeous varieties of hellebores, in shades of yellow, green, red, pink, pure white and near-black. Several personal favourites include ‘Golden Sunrise’ ‘Onyx Odyssey’, ‘Jade Tiger’ and ‘Ivory Prince’.

Hepatica. Although rarely found in native ecosystems in our region anymore, several species of liverwort can be acquired from specialty nurseries skilled at propagating them. Hepatica blooms early in spring—as soon as the snow is off the garden!—with flowers of white or blue. Elsewhere in the world there is a lot of interest in hybridizing hepatica varieties, but I’ve yet to see any of them offered in our region. Maybe that’ll be the next big thing! Hepatica likes a shaded location, as it is a plant of hardwood forest areas.

Mertensia. The spring ephemeral Virginia bluebell is related to Brunnera and Pulmonaria, and is a good pollinator plant. Flowers of cool blue on nodding stems appear in April and into May, and in good growing conditions it will spread into nice drifts—but it will also disappear for the season once temperatures grow too warm.

Primula. I’ve extolled the virtues of primula, also known as primroses, auriculas and cowslips, in a previous issue of Saltscapes. But it is worth repeating—with so many different species and varieties of primula available, there are varieties for most every garden and growing condition. Flowers come in a dizzying number of hues and colour combinations, some with unusual contrasting patterning in the petals. Last year at the Rare and Unusual Plant sale in Annapolis Royal (this year on May 22 at 1pm at the Farmers Market) I was fortunate to acquire some unusual beauties from alpine specialist Wrightman Alpines of St. Andrews, New Brunswick. I’m already saving up for this year’s sale!

Pulmonaria has many common names, including lungwort, William and Mary, and Bethlehem sage. This is a favourite perennial, partly because it bursts into bloom when it’s hardly out of the ground in spring. But it also has beautiful flowers in shades of blue, pink, or in pure white. Lungworts are cherished for their foliage as well as their blooms, because many varieties have leaves that are spangled, splashed, or speckled with silver or pale metallic green. They are also excellent pollinator plants.

Pulsatilla. Prairie crocus or pasqueflower blooms for many weeks from early until late spring, with blooms in shades of pink, purple or red. When the flowers are spent, very attractive seedheads linger for more weeks. Drought tolerant once established, pasqueflower likes a sunny, well-drained site.

Sanguinaria. This perennial is commonly known as bloodroot because its roots exude a red juicy sap when cut open. Native to our region, bloodroot is a spring ephemeral that loves a lightly shaded spot in your garden, and produces single or double, pure white flowers. There is a pink form as well, but I prefer the look of the pristine white form. Bloodroot will gradually spread in colonies, but isn’t invasive.

Trillium. Our region is home to several wild species of trillium, but rather than dig them up, you’re better advised to purchase plants from reputable nurseries. Along with native species, you’ll often find other, more unusual varieties of trillium available from specialty nurseries, including at least one yellow species. Trilliums tend to be ephemeral, but don’t usually go dormant until late spring or early summer.

Viola. Whether you call them pansies, Johnny-Jump-Ups or violas, these are the quintessential, old-fashioned spring flower. Their petals marked so they look like they have faces and whiskers, they come in a rainbow of colours and sizes. Violas are a true flower of spring, tending to go dormant or stop blooming in warm weather, but flushing with fresh bloom once the weather cools down again. I took photos last fall of several seedling violas still bravelyblooming in December!

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