UNSUNG PERENNIALS

Perfect herbaceous additions to the spring border

by HELEN DILLON

Whenever I hear the word spring, a picture of tulips and daffodils comes dancing into my head. I adore them both, but for me the sight of naked stalks emerging from bare soil can be made more inviting by planting some early-flowering perennials nearby. I remember a garden I visited years ago where the owners had decided to plant a white bulb garden for spring. Catalogs had been trawled. Battalions of white hyacinths, daffodils, crocuses, and tulips marched up and down the bleak post-winter earth. How much the effect would have been uplifted by incorporating some of the charming, nonbulbous spring flowers. I’m not talking about your glamorous hellebores, your specialist-nursery epimediums—just some plants, rarely lauded, deserving of a new and appreciative public.

PEAS AND BORAGES

I can’t say enough good things about early-blooming members of the pea family. Lathyrus vernus (USDA Zones 4-9) flowers in my Dublin garden in March and April. Under 18 inches high, this plant is long-lived, tidy of habit, and self-seeds precisely the right amount—a few to keep and give away. The most usual flower color is magenta, a welcome color to mix with all the spring yellows. ‘Alboroseus’ is a nice pink, and there’s a pretty bluish one, but my white Lathyrus vernus var. albus seems a slow starter. Lathyrus aureus (Zones 6-9) blooms later, is a bit taller, and soft orange. These spring peas are survivors, never in need of fussing over. The roots are tough and tangled up—propagation by seed is less strenuous than division.

The borage family (relations of the bright blue biennial herb, Borago officinalis) includes some invaluable plants, such as the pulmonarias, commonly known as lungworts. A nurseryman once revealed to me that the secret of propagating the Boraginaceae is only to disturb the roots either just before or just after flowering. As they seem so nicely tucked in before flowering, I don’t like to divide them then, which means that I must remember to do so after they flower in early summer. Lots of divisions planted in a big group will make an exuberant display the following spring. Pulmonaria saccharata ‘Glebe Cottage Blue’, P. s. ‘Leopard’, deep coral, P. officinalis ‘Blue Mist’, self descriptive, and P. longifolia ‘Ankum’, with silver-splashed elongated leaves, are all good, but P. ‘Blue Ensign’ is even better, a gorgeous rich blue. ‘Diana Clare’, which was discovered in 1997 by Bob Brown at his nursery, Cotswold Garden Flowers, in Worcestershire, England, and named after his wife, is my absolute tops of the moment—the flowers are lovely purple and the luminous silvery green leaves form a marvellous bright patch for much of the year.

Brunnera macrophylla (Zones 3-10), also a member of the Boraginaceae, and its various cultivars are decorative, trouble-free plants for shade (except for a few weeks after flowering, when they must be tidied back to ground level). The plants, under two feet high, have intense blue, little forget-me-not flowers and heart-shaped, hairy leaves (unappealing to slugs). Some cultivars have white flowers. My experience of brunneras is as follows: I still walk past B. macrophylla ‘Langtrees’ (in the same position for 25 years) and think what a terrific plant it is, the leaves plentifully covered with bright platinum spots. (There are several disappointing, probably seed-grown, forms around, with few spots.) ‘Dawson’s White’ proved too delicate a creature for me (the white edges of the leaves resented drying winds), while ‘Hadspen Cream’ is more robust, with beautiful cream-and-green variegated leaves. ‘Jack Frost’ is a drop-dead gorgeous newcomer, available everywhere, the silver leaves beautifully etched and traced in green. One ‘Jack Frost’ is good; ten are amazing. Deep shade, moisture, and rich soil are all to its taste. (Incidentally, when planting any of these fancy forms of brunnera, position them in the right place the first time, because if you subsequently move them the plain green form will regenerate from bits of root left behind.)

Some heavenly blue flowers are found among spring perennials. I wouldn’t be without Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’ (Zones 6-9), about one foot tall with large, bright forget-me-nots, yet another borage relation. However, I’ve decided not to bother anymore with the sensation of the early 1990s, ‘Starry Eyes’. Despite its pretty, lilac-edged blue flowers, this plant has a poor constitution (in this garden, at any rate).

CHOICE CRUCIFERS

I’ve been promoting the cardamines (which used to be called Dentaria, hence the common name of toothwort) for years. Agreed, they are related to cabbages and their leaves are nothing special, but the secret is to plant them at the backs of borders, so summer plants will come up in front of them, or to tuck them under shrubs. Those with mauve or pink flowers, such as Cardamine pentaphylla (Zones 5-9), refresh the eye in contrast to the many yellow spring flowers. Cardamine enneaphylla (Zones 5-9), lovely near purple crocuses, is the first to bloom here, with creamy yellow flowers. White C. heptaphylla (Zones 6-9) has been silently colonizing the backs of the borders, lightening up the bare soil in out-of-the-way places. To every plant a few moments of fame, and C. trifolia (Zones 6-9) deserves special mention. My original plant was given to me by the great plantsman Graham Thomas. Neat, dark green leaves form an interlocking, efficient green carpet. To make an evergreen, six-inch-high mat, decorated with sparkling white flowers, pull an established plant to bits and plant small divisions a few inches apart—lovely between stepping-stones in woodland gardens.

Making More Perennials

DIVIDING PERENNIALS not only enables you to increase your stock, it also has the effect of reinvigorating an aging plant, a phenomenon known as juvenescence. A garden fork is the best tool for lifting a perennial clumpp—try to damage the roots as little as possible. Often it is easy to see where to divide the clump—the individual crowns are evident. In some cases, however, the clump is a single mass of roots and emerging new growth. In either case, use a sharp knife to divide the clump into manageable pieces, making sure that each piece has healthy roots and growing points. Replant the sections in enriched soil, and water them in well. Keep them well watered until they have settled in and new growth appears vigorous.—Tom Fischer

Another cabbage relation, Pachyphragma macrophyllum (Zones 5-9) from the Caucasus and northeastern Turkey, is hardly recognized by gardeners for the excellent plant it is. Bright green leaves and a prolonged display of white flowers illuminate bits of garden you didn’t know you had.

PIGSQUEAK, PULSATILLAS, AND PRIMROSES

Bergenias, with their large, shiny, leathery evergreen leaves, are not the height of fashion—especially in areas where slugs and vine weevils do their fancy cutwork at the leaf edges. (Their colloquial name, pigsqueak, doesn’t help much either.) I’ve managed to edit my original collection down to two: a good form of Bergenia purpurascens (Zones 4-9) with shining leaves of beetroot red from November to March, and a terrific form of the hairy bergenia, B. ciliata (Zones 6-10, deciduous in cold winters). This has leaves a foot or more long, bristling with hairs, another example of a plant adapting to harsh weather conditions. To us, bergenias appear very much plants of ground level, but where they grow wild, in Nepal for example, you see them hanging on the edges of vertical cliffs.

Pulsatillas are plants of the alpine meadows. Happy in alkaline soil, they need good drainage, full sun, and don’t like to be disturbed. Pulsatilla vulgaris (Zones 5-9) is variable; growing it from seed, you will have many different forms. There are also some good cultivars around with very frilly petals. Perhaps the most beautiful and legendary of all is the form known as ‘Budapest’. It could be that the true plant still exists somewhere, but a seedling, inherited from David Shackleton of Beech Park, still lifts my heart each spring. The color is an exquisite blend of mauve and turquoise, the petals scattered with silky hairs, surrounding a central boss of golden stamens. I give it doses of liquid tomato fertilizer in summer to encourage flowering.

I adore primroses (cultivars of Primula vulgaris), but here vine weevil larvae demolish the roots—you can practically hear them chomping away underground. But I do find P. pubescens cultivars and also auriculas (hybrids of mysterious origin, including P. auricula itself) worth growing in pots in a cold frame. These plants need a nourishing, well-drained potting mix. My preferred compost of the moment is one third each of peat, leafmold, and vermiculite. Never use too big a pot—a three-inch pot is right for a single plant. Auriculas and P. pubescens cultivars need fresh air in their winter frame and careful watering (when the weather’s cold, practically none). Divide and repot in May. Keep shaded and watered and occasionally fed until the following autumn, when they should be cleaned up and rehoused.

BUTTERCUPS AND OTHER SPRING WILDLINGS

There are several early buttercups to recommend, from the old-fashioned, very double Ranunculus constantinopolitanus ‘Plenus’ (Zones 6-9), the bright yellow flowers crammed to bursting with petals and bright green middles, and the easily grown R. gramineus (Zones 7-9), with glaucous-blue leaves and glistening buttercup flowers, to the tender Madeiran R. cortusifolius (Zones 9-10), which I’ve lost more times than I care to remember.

Some of the most beautiful early-spring plants are so ethereal that they shyly drop their petals the moment you look at them—such as the exquisitely beautiful Jeffersonia dubia (Zones 5-8), a shade-loving herbaceous member of the barberry family with luminous lavender flowers and leaves flushed purple. The flowers of my pink form of the bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis (Zone 3-8), flutter to the ground in the slightest March wind. Everybody grows the beautiful double form, but the ordinary species itself is really nice.

Perhaps it’s because the fleeting moments of spring are so hard to capture that it’s the most cherished season of all. Apart from the wonderful array of bulbs at our disposal, there are many exciting small perennial plants to interplant with them. Try them. Your spring garden will be gloriously enriched. H

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 76.

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