Gardening Blog

The first perennials to flower in spring

It’s always a neck-and-neck contest to see whether it will be the small spring bulbs (snowdrops, snow crocuses and winter aconites) or hellebores (Helleborus spp. and cvs.) that win the race to produce the first flowers of the new gardening season once the witchhazels have finished.

In my garden, the snowdrops won the cup this year, but when the white stuff finally melted, it revealed hellebore blossoms that had already partially opened under a thin, insulating layer of snow.

We often get mail at this time of year asking whether gardeners should remove the leathery overwintering leaves of hellebores, or leave them in place to die down naturally (as with daffodils and tulips). The answer is that it’s really a matter of personal taste. Some gardeners feel that the old foliage offers protection against spring frosts, while others say that the previous season’s leaves detract from the plant’s overall appearance.

You be the judge, here’s the “before snipping” picture of two separate clumps:

And here’s the hellebore on the right, several days later:

It’s called HGC Champion (Helleborus ×ballardiae ‘Coseh 730’, Zone 4), and is part of the Helleborus Gold Collection; to find out more about this fantastic series, have a look at the Up Close article about green flowers in the current Early Summer issue of Canadian Gardening (page 64). And those are the emerging leaves and buds of Brunnera ‘Looking Glass’ in the background—they’ll start to flower in about 10 days.

And here’s the hellebore on the left:

This is an unnamed seedling that popped up in my garden several years ago (notice its lovely red stems). I’m always encouraging gardeners to grow several different species or cultivars of the same genus at close quarters: it often leads to happy discoveries like this one. Although HGC Champion is considered sterile, I suspect that the bees made a heroic cross between Champion and one of my old H. purpurascens seed strains that were popular before fancier hybrids became widely available.

These older strains have flowers that nod, but my new seedling seems to have inherited the upright-facing flowers of Champion with some of the rich purple-red tones of H. purpurascens. I get dozens of new hellebore seedlings every year, and while the majority are duds that get weeded out immediately, every once in a while, I get a really nice flower, and the best part is that the bees do all the work.

Surprisingly, this laid-back, serendipitous style of plant breeding has produced some of the best cultivars in our gardens today (think Rozanne [‘Gerwat’] hardy geranium). All it requires is several fertile plants, some willing insects, and a gardener with an observant eye. This venerable old plant—I’ve had it for over 20 years—moves wherever I do, and the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis, Zone 3) and ephemeral purple-pink fumewort (Corydalis solida, Zone 5) that sit at its feet always seem to come along for the ride as well.

And speaking of random seedlings, the first of my lungworts (Pulmonaria spp. and cvs.) to bloom is always an open-pollinated seedling of the famous cultivar P. ‘Sissinghurst White’.

While ‘Sissinghurst White’ bears pristine white flowers, its seedlings almost always bloom in these rich, pinky blue hues, which look so beautiful against the green and white-splashed leaves. Pulmonaria is a member of the Borage Family, and many of the plants in this group send up flower buds together with their first leaves: other examples include Brunnera (Siberian bugloss), Myosotis (forget-me-nots) and Mertensia (Virginia bluebells), so gardeners everywhere owe a lot to this family, so efficient at producing stunning blue flowers in early spring.

Blooming at the same time (this is, after all, what gardeners call “the spring glut”), is our indigenous bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis, Zone 3), native from Nova Scotia to Manitoba.

My clump thrusts up through the woody crown of a ‘Robustissima’ Japanese anemone (a not inconsiderable feat) without difficulty, and self-seeds modestly. Perhaps more important in this alarming era of hive collapse and plummeting honey- and bumble-bee populations is that bloodroot is an important early-spring source of nectar and pollen—just look at the pollen sacs on the hind legs of this industrious little fellow!

For more information on how to grow Sanguinaria canadensis, have a look at our natural selection: bloodroot article from Canadian Gardening’s April 2012 issue.

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