Plants - Perennials

First flowers of spring

These sturdy perennials laugh at cold weather and are a treat for the flower-starved eye.

Is any season more eagerly anticipated than spring? By late winter we're fretful and restless, searching half-thawed beds for stirring buds and peeping petals, eagerly seeking instant floriferous gratification.

The earliest herbaceous perennials give you a six-week jump on spring, delighting the eye when it's still too chilly to sit in the garden. These intrepid bloomers don't mind frosty nights and icy soil, and can sustain their tender shoots under an unpredicted late blanket of snow. The sturdiest of their kind, they have ancestral roots in the cool, temperate regions of North America and Europe, and have evolved to adapt to their environment. Some are indigenous to high slopes, where alpine valleys catch the first warm rays of spring sun. Others must get their blossoms out for insect pollinators that disappear when the air warms.

Knowing how to use early-flowering plants to best effect—in clusters or as ground covers for pre-season empty spaces‐is one of the most satisfying aspects of gardening. It's noteworthy that the earliest flowers are always on the shortest plants—no time or energy is wasted in growing long stems. Violets in warm pockets of winter sun will spontaneously flower on two- to five-centimetre stems. Later in spring, stems will be twice that length, using newly manufactured energy from the current season.

Writing about her garden in March, English garden designer Gertrude Jekyll noted, “What a charm there is about the common violet; it is pretty everywhere, in borders, in the rock garden, in all sorts of corners.” Clustered in groups of five or more plants for maximum effect, violets delicately skirt the edges of large shrubs or hedges. Their many species and different blooming times allow for a long season: the native bird's-foot violet (Viola pedata, Zone 5), which likes a sandy soil, is followed by the tiny Labrador violet (V. labradorica, Zone 5), suited to moist beds, with purple-flushed leaves and miniature blooms, and the mid-season, deeply scented English violet (V. odorata, Zone 6, or Zone 5 with winter mulch protection), on 17-centimetre stems.

The earliest Anemone blanda cultivar, ‘White Splendour' (Zone 4), lifts blazing white daisy flowers in frosty sunlight. Springing from small, black tubers, these little anemones, most effective in clusters, should be planted in autumn (soak the tubers overnight). Also in various shades of blue and pink (including the vivid pink ‘Radar'), in time they spread into a thick and dependable clump. Their cousin, the pasque flower (A. pulsatilla, syn. Pulsatilla vulgaris, Zone 5) grows from a fibrous root, preferably in gritty, alkaline soil, opening silken bell-shaped flowers soon after. Pasque flower's feathery foliage and fuzzy seed heads are attractive all season, with spring flowers of white, pale mauve, pink, deep violet or red.

Clusters of early primroses seem to love any degree of cold and damp weather, and ignore the abuses of whippy spring winds. The prominent yellow buds of the common primrose (Primula vulgaris, Zone 5) and cowslip (P. veris, Zone 5) dwarf the leaf tips struggling to emerge below. The small pots of stridently coloured primroses sold in supermarkets back in January have been forced in greenhouses, but you can keep them on a cool windowsill until it's warm enough to transplant them to the garden, where they'll come back to brighten shady corners in springs to come.

(image: Lemon daylilies, which open in early May in Zone 6, mingle with poppies and wild phlox)

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