Field Notes 18

Midwest BY MARTY ROSS / Kansas City, Missouri, Zone 5

Early Arrivals

ONLY THOSE WHO HAVE LIVED through the unforgiving bitterness of a midwestern winter can detect the sweet breath of spring in a cold, gray, drizzly morning in March—but if you happen to be out in the garden on such a day, bundled up and poking inquisitively in the mulch, you’ll find the garden is already stirring.

Ephemeral flowers, the ones that emerge and bloom for a very short time, then disappear for the summer, are among the first to defy the waning winter. These perennials are not big and flashy enough to stop traffic, but in their own quiet way they transform the garden.

In my garden, liverwort (Hepatica acutiloba; USDA Zones 4—8) is usually the first ephemeral to bloom. Dozens of sparkling white flowers, barely an inch across, push through the leaf litter under my old oak in mid-March and last for two weeks or more, through what are inevitably some rather difficult conditions. One day the temperature is 45’F, the next day it’s 11’. By April, the fuzzy three-lobed leaves are beginning to unfurl, and the flowers of a nearby epimedium steal the spotlight.

Just when the hepaticas start to bloom, a fine clump of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia; Zones 4–8) emerges on the other side of the bed. I usually see the tender foliage, in a tight rosette, a few days before the stems of the dangling, reflexed flowers appear. I’m told that shooting stars used to be abundant in parks and gardens around here, but times have apparently changed. I bought mine at a local nursery. The plants persist only for a matter of weeks; mine usually disappears entirely by early May, under the spreading leaves of Brunnera macrophylla, with its blue haze of bloom.

By the first of April, the trilliums are up, seeming to appear overnight, and sometimes in unexpected places. Two small species, the yellow T. luteum and one that may be the prairie trillium, T. recurvatum (both Zones 4–8), have found their way to the edge of a bed, where I can appreciate their handsome leaves, mottled with silver, without the risk of stepping on something else. When they fade, Solomon’s seal, hostas, and ferns take over in that spot.

Years ago I planted double bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’; Zones 3–9) in rich oak loam. It promptly disappeared, but the third spring it surprised me with a great flush of snow-white flowers. Now I always look for it around the first of April. Even if the temperatures have been in the low 20s, the ruffled flowers throw themselves wide open. They fall apart after a few days, but more follow for a week or so, and by the time the blooms are gone I’m fascinated by the handsome, deeply lobed leaves—which themselves disappear behind a hellebore sometime in June.

A little clump of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria; Zones 4–8) has survived aggressive digging by the local squirrel population and comes into bloom in early April. You have to get down on your hands and knees to appreciate its curious flowers and delicate foliage, but you can admire the nearby bluebells (Mertensia virginica; Zones 3–7; pictured) from across the garden. Bluebells also take a couple of years to produce their great luxuriance of heavenly blue flowers, but it’s worth the wait.

To do in the garden

  • Plant parsley seeds in a sunny spot in March. A local gardener taught me to spread my seeds, cover them lightly, and water them in with boiling water. It works every time.

  • Daffodils will spring back after a light frost, but if the buds are already yellow and temperatures in the low 20s are forecast, pick a big bouquet for the house.

  • Lots of gardeners in my neighborhood are eager to mow in spring. I always try to get hold of a bag of fresh grass clippings to work into the autumn leaves in the compost heap.

  • It’s never too early to make the rounds at local nurseries. You can plant trees and shrubs, bareroot roses, and perennials of all kinds now.

Worth growing

Muscari ‘Valerie Finnis’

Tough and reliable Muscari armeniacum (Zones 4–9) is a spring staple in my garden, but I keep adding new species and varieties to the collection. Last year I planted ‘Valerie Finnis” in a clump of hardy ginger (Asarum canadense). The spikes of soft, dusty-blue flowers are perfect partners for the ginger’s downy new foliage. Sources, page 88.

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