Early bloomers put a spring in your step

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - By Ailsa Francis

IMUST have been in my early 40s the first time I started push­ing away the last mounds of snow and was elated to un­cover the first snow­drop of spring or clus­ter of fresh, green fo­liage.

I’m sure it’s the sen­sory de­pri­va­tion of win­ter that makes spring blooms greener and their fra­grance ex­hil­a­rat­ing, but I am con­vinced the plants of April and May are some of the most glo­ri­ous and use­ful of the gar­den­ing sea­son.

If you’re look­ing for great per­form­ers, then con­sider some of the fol­low­ing spring stars.

Whether it’s the re­sult of cli­mate change, the pres­ence of ur­ban mi­cro­cli­mates or sim­ply the intrepid de­ter­mi­na­tion of gar­den­ers, some ten­der peren­ni­als are now grown in our colder zones. This is great since we can now find plants at the nurs­ery that were once con­sid­ered ex­otic and came with a stern warn­ing: You can’t grow that here.

Hail to the helle­bore

The helle­bore was al­ways known to me as an English church­yard flower, re­splen­dent in its pink and pur­ple blooms dur­ing the tem­per­ate Bri­tish win­ter.

Sur­pris­ingly, the len­ten rose or helle­borus ori­en­talis (rather than the less ro­bust christ­mas rose, helle­borus niger,) is a strong grower when placed un­der the shade of an ap­ple tree or in a north or east-fac­ing gar­den.

With shiny, un­usu­ally rigid leaves, this helle­bore slowly grows into a strong clump (up to one-and-a-half feet tall and al­most two feet wide) that re­tains its crisp, deep green colour and sturdy form all sea­son.

Al­though its fo­liage is con­sid­ered ev­er­green in warmer ar­eas, it is best for lo­cal gar­den­ers to snip off last sea­son’s leaves to make way for the new ones. This way there will be a clean slate for the emerg­ing blooms. Hap­pily, this is es­sen­tially the only main­te­nance you’ll need since the helle­bore doesn’t need di­vid­ing (it ac­tu­ally re­sents be­ing dis­turbed) and will grow in av­er­age soil. In my ex­pe­ri­ence it is also pest and crit­ter re­sis­tant, but do be care­ful be­cause it is con­sid­ered toxic and can cause der­mati­tis.

When the helle­bore flow­ers start to un­furl in early spring, the down­ward­fac­ing blooms yield stun­ning colours and spot­ted petals that are like hid­den jew­els wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered.

With grow­ers madly hy­bridiz­ing these plants, you can find sin­gle and dou­ble se­lec­tions in many shades of pink, rose, pur­ple, white, green and yel­low. And be­cause of its beauty, ease of cul­ture and re­li­a­bil­ity, this gem was se­lected as the peren­nial plant of the year for 2005.

The stal­wart bar­ren­wort

An­other early jewel and stal­wart peren­nial is bar­ren­wort which is known as bishop’s hat or fairy wings or by the botan­i­cal name of epimedium. This plant is sim­i­lar to helle­bore in that the leaves are also con­sid­ered ev­er­green. They are smooth and of­ten edged in rus­set tones, stand­ing up rea­son­ably well to win­ter’s abuse, but again are best re­tired in spring in favour of their fresher suc­ces­sors.

Both the fo­liage and tiny blooms are held up by wiry stems, but the most com­mon form of this plant (epimedium x rubrum) is in no way a sen­si­tive crea­ture. It can de­velop into a gen­er­ous colony if given fer­tile soil and con­sis­tent mois­ture (al­though it will thrive in dry shade once set­tled), and reach one foot in height and about two feet in spread.

The spring flow­ers on epimedium are like minia­ture or­chids, best ap­pre­ci­ated from a close dis­tance and their most com­mon colour is red­dish pink. More re­fined forms of­fer ei­ther yel­low (E. x ver­si­color ‘sul­phureum’) or white (E. x youn­gia­n­ium ‘niveum’) flow­ers, but in my gar­den these species have taken longer to es­tab­lish and are less hardy. New hues of the bleed­ing heart One of the most well-known spring peren­ni­als is the bleed­ing heart, but its new­est in­car­na­tion is an un­likely star. The com­monly ac­cepted no-no of com­bin­ing pink and yel­low, is un­abashedly ig­nored in this drop-dead stun­ner. Any oc­ca­sion for yel­low fo­liage in a shady gar­den should be her­alded, for it draws the eye into a dim and un­de­fined space. So, give a young pink bloom­ing di­cen­tra spectabilis ‘gold heart’ sum­mer shade, as well as com­post for fer­til­ity and to re­tain mois­ture through the sum­mer’s heat and you’ll be re­warded with a peren­nial with the pres­ence and longevity of a shrub.

In my gar­den, this plant reached its full stature of three feet tall and wide by its sec­ond sea­son and con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, will not nec­es­sar­ily go dor­mant in July or Au­gust if pro­vided with op­ti­mal con­di­tions.

See you soon at the plant nurs­ery.

— Canwest News Ser­vice

The spring flow­ers on Epimedium (bar­ren­wort) are like minia­ture or­chids and their most com­mon colour is red­dish pink, top left. You can find sin­gle and dou­ble se­lec­tions of the helle­bore, main photo, in many shades of pink, rose, pur­ple, white, green and yel­low. One of the most well-known spring peren­ni­als is the gor­geous

Bleed­ing Heart, above.

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