One of the first signs of spring is the emergence of the crocus and daffodils. Yet some perennials can also introduce the spring season. There are a number of early blooming spring perennials that can complement the bulbs and help wake up the perennial garden. The following perennials are the prelude to the later spring bloomers.
Heartleaf Brunnera - Brunnera macrophylla (right) is a low growing, mounding perennial (12-18 inches tall) with tiny, brilliant, blue flowers starting in early spring and continuing for a month or more. The masses of true blue flowers are reminiscent of forget-me-not, hence the common name of perennial forget-me-not. The heart-shaped leaves, source of another common name, remain clean and dark green throughout the summer and beyond. Brunnera prefers part shade with moist, well-drained soil. However, it will perform well in full sun if enough moisture is provided. It grows in dense shade as well. Heartleaf Brunnera works well in combination with hostas and lungworts.
Crested Iris - Iris cristata (left) is one of the few irises to bloom in the shade garden. Compared to the bearded iris, crested iris is tiny, reaching only 6 inches in height. Flowers are smaller and without beards but very effective in the woodland garden. Flower colors are somewhat limited, mainly blue, purple, and white. The crested iris has fewer insect and disease problems than the bearded iris. The plant prefers full sun to part shade with well-drained soil. Crested iris also works well in the rock garden.
Lenten Rose - Helleborus orientalis (right) is a semi-evergreen to evergreen perennial that usually starts blooming in March. The nodding, bell-like flowers vary in color from creamy white, pale green, lavender, to burgundy. Plants will reach 15 to 18 inches tall. This perennial is a bit more temperamental than many other perennials requiring fertile, moist, well-drained soil in part to full shade. Since it is such an early bloomer with leathery evergreen foliage, give it a protected site away from the strong winter winds. This perennial is also marginally cold hardy, so plant it close to the house where you will notice its lovely flowers and provide a little extra warmth as well.
Lungwort or Bethlehem Sage - Pulmonaria saccharata (left) is a mounding perennial (10 to 18 inches tall) noted for its attractive foliage. The dark green leaves are often spotted or mottled with silvery white areas. The foliage of some cultivars has more silver than green. Although the foliage is the main ornamental feature of this plant, the flowers are lovely as well. Flowers can be white, pink, or blue and some even change from pink to blue. This plant performs best in part shade with fertile, moist, well-drained soil.
Pasque Flower - Pulsatilla vulgaris (right) is a fuzzy little perennial that works well in shady areas beneath deciduous trees. Before the leaves emerge on many trees, the pasque flower produces purple, maroon, or white flowers atop of finely dissected foliage. The flower buds and fruit heads (appearing later in spring and summer) are covered with long grayish white hairs giving the plant a fuzzy appearance. The seed heads can reach 10 to 12 inches, while the flowers and foliage often remain much lower. This plant would easily get lost in the summer garden if it were not for the interesting seed heads. Pasque flower prefers full sun to part shade with fertile, well-drained soil.
Pig Squeak - Bergenia cordifolia (left) has large, shiny, semi-evergreen leaves that work well as edging. The green leaves often turn red or maroon in winter. Several new cultivars produce purple foliage. The flowers, secondary to the ornamental foliage, are produced in clusters in early spring. The pink and white flowers are produced on 12 to 18 inch scapes or stalks. This plant performs well in full sun to part shade and is adaptable to a wide variety of soils. Protection of the foliage from strong winds will prevent tattering and browning of the foliage during the winter.
Candytuft - Iberis sempervirens (right) is another perennial with semi-evergreen to evergreen foliage. The flowers are pure white and can blanket the foliage for a couple of weeks in spring. Candytuft has a low growing, mounding habit reaching 6 to 12 inches tall. This plant works well in the front of the border or cascading slightly over a small wall. Plant it in full sun to part shade with some protection from winter winds.
Moss Phlox - Phlox subulata (left) is noted for its bright carpets of color for several weeks in spring. Flower colors include white, various shades of pink and lavender, as well as bi-colors. The foliage is dark green, needle-like and evergreen. Plant height is 3 to 6 inches tall making it a wonderful edging or rock garden plant. The plant prefers full sun and insists on well-drained soil.
A few other early spring bloomers include: snowdrop anemone (Anemone sylvestris), basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis), Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), trilliums (Trillium spp.), and violets (Viola spp.). Try some of these perennials in your garden and watch them herald the coming of spring.
This article originally appeared in the April 24, 1998 issue, pp. 44-45.