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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Making the most of early spring

This is one of my favorite times in the garden, when leaves start to show and every day brings new green shoots poking up from the soil. This weekend I’m surveying how my native plants have held up through the winter.

      Among native perennials, I’ve had success with shade-loving spring bloomers that are referred to as spring ephemerals, because they do all their important work early in the growing season. One of the first I tried was white bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’). It sends up stalks of feathery first leaves in early April. The pearly white blooms last into May. 

First bleeding heart leaves

Blooming last May

As the summer comes on, the foliage usually turns yellow and withers. I’ve learned that I don’t have to worry. The plants’ fleshy roots store up fuel for the next year even when little or no green foliage shows after July.

    This strategy allows the bleeding heart to soak up the sun’s energy before the trees overhead have leafed out. The early flowers get lots of attention from insect pollinators, who have few other options at this time of year. Then the plant can go dormant and rest, with minimal metabolic demands, until the following spring. 

     The same approach works for bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), which is just unfurling its distinctive gray-green indented leaves now and opening its white flowers. After ten years in my garden, the original few plants have started to spread. Now I have colonies in shady areas within view of the house. Their appearance is one of the heart-lifting signs that spring is really here.

Flowers opened this week
Bloodroot is making a colony

I’m just getting started with another spring ephemeral, yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), also called dog-tooth violet. One of three I planted near a stone birdbath has disappeared, one is limping along, and the third really seems happy. There’s a colony of these covering at least a thousand square feet in a local conservation area, near the banks of a small stream. I’m hoping my few plants will send out lots of offspring. It may depend on their getting enough moisture.

Trout lily getting ready to send up its flower stalk
     Until yesterday I thought I had killed a new native shrub I planted last year, Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus). It made it through the summer in fairly dense shade, getting only morning sun. Its dark red blossoms were as unusual and striking as I’d hoped. This spring it wasn’t showing any sign of leafing out, though. I was afraid it had died for lack of an insulating snow blanket during our strange winter. But now a few leaf buds are opening, giving me hope that it just needs more time. 
Carolina allspice in bloom
Not dead, starting to break dormancy


Some plants leaf out so late that I have to remind myself not to despair. Is this an evolutionary strategy? It may just reflect their origin farther south than New England. I’ve noticed this with oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) too. A new one I planted in front of the house is just starting to show signs of life. 

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A follow-up to last week’s post: The daffodils did bounce back when the snow melted. You can’t keep a good Narcissus down!

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