Northeast: Ephemeral Love

Montague. Massachusetts. USDA Zone 5

Gardeners everywhere greet spring with enthusiasm, but the duration and severity of New England winters encourage those of us who garden here to regard with a certain ardor the first plants to emerge from the still-cold ground. Among my favorites are Adonis vernalis, Anemone nemorosa, Sanguinaria canadensis, and Helleborus xhybridus. Against the bleak and colorless landscape, these ephemeral beauties brave the last volleys of wintry weather, often blooming before insects have arrived to pollinate them, or indeed, even before their own foliage has emerged.

The beauty and early appearance of these plants more than make up for their brief presence in the garden. In fact, the transitory nature of their appearance is not really a drawback. Rather, it provides us with the opportunity to double-plant in such a way that other garden participants can take over later in the season. Hostas can perform this role with great success—still asleep when anemones and adonis appear, hosta shoots emerge just as the early show subsides. By the time ephemeral foliage is turning frowsy, the hosta leaves have filled out and completely covered their neighbors’ disarray. Large masses of hostas anchor the beds of our shade garden for the duration of the summer, providing interest and color with first their leaves and then their flowers. At the nursery, I frequently explained to new shade gardeners that plants with interesting foliage, not showy flowers, are the best bet for long-season interest and success.

Hostas are not the only shade plants that do this well. Another planting features miniature narcissi in the early spring. Once the flowers fade and the daffodil foliage begins to dry, it is swallowed up by the emerging leaves of the lovely shade-tolerant grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, which provides a refreshing splash of lemon yellow in the garden with its mounds of arching, striped foliage.

Another successful combination uses the native woodland groundcover Pachysandra procumbens. Its pale pink, star-shaped, fragrant flowers are held on four-inch-high beige stems. Theirs is a subtle and curious beauty, one that might easily be missed in the hubbub of later spring excitement, but is quite striking in mid-April. We plant the miniature annual Viola ‘Sorbet Antique Shades’, with its charming deep maroon and purple flowers, to complement the pachysandra’s muted tones. Later, when the violas have succumbed to the heat, the elegant matte green leaves of our native, drought-tolerant pachysandra have filled in to cover the area nicely.

Ferns, too, bridge the seasons with aplomb. Their relatively late emergence leaves room for any number of early show-offs to create a splash. In our garden, this works particularly well with a planting of Scopiola carniolica, a Caucasian member of the solanum family. Its substantial, pale green leaves appear early in May, in synchrony with its exotic, deep violetbrown flowers with chartreuse interiors. By June, when the scopiola languishes, the once-nascent crosiers of the adjacent ostrich fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, have unfurled to their full magnificence, ready to carry the rest of the season.

At no time is the prevalence of change in the garden more evident than in early spring, when dramatic shifts can occur in the course of just one day. It is precisely the fleeting nature of spring in New England that encourages us to enjoy every moment we have in the garden. An understanding of the limitations and the strengths of each garden resident equips us to create gardens where every plant can shine.


  • Assess the spring-blooming bulbs in your garden and take notes on which ones to plant more of, as well as where you might like to put new ones. Color-coded golf tees are useful for indicating both where you already have them and spots to fill in next fall. Of you’re like me, you won’t remember.)

  • Cut back the old foliage of epimediums and hellebores in the shade garden if you didn’t last fall. You’ll enjoy their stupendous blooms much more. This is also a good time to give shade carex a crew cut.

  • Take a few notes, while your memory is fresh, about which plants gave your garden winter interest. Where do you need more to look at from indoors?

  • Cut a few branches of hamamelis, corylopsis, Cornus mas, and, of course, forsythia and salix to force indoors. These will provide considerable cheer on those inevitable New England spring days when the weather seems more like winter.

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