After a long cold snowy winter what could be more delightful than early spring flowers? Many people plant early-blooming bulbs like snowdrops, squill, or crocus in the fall and buy cold-tolerant annuals like pansies as soon as they’re available in the spring. But no one should overlook our own beautiful early spring woodland native plants, so perfectly adapted to our area and climate.
Woodland native plants grow well under deciduous trees or in shady spots in the garden. Many are ephemerals—they grow and bloom before the trees leaf out in spring and then become dormant and die back in the heat of summer. Many of these wonderful plants spread themselves around nicely in the garden and work well with other native and non-native spring garden favorites like crocuses, magnolias, bleeding hearts, species tulips, serviceberries, violets, primroses and hostas.
Anyone who’s visited Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary in Minneapolis in April or May has seen carpets of these lovely blooms. Two of the earliest to bloom are bloodroot and hepatica. Bloodroot’s white daisy-like blossoms emerge cloaked in a single curled-up leaf soon after the snow melts. Its name comes from its red sap. Hepatica’s dainty lavender or white flowers bloom before any new leaf growth and nod on their hairy stalks before opening. Hepatica comes in two varieties: round-lobed or sharp-lobed (describing the shape of its leaves). These cold-hardy flowers open whenever it is warm and bright enough for insects to be out and about.
Following soon after are rue anemones, airy, delicate little bushy plants with white or, more rarely, pink blooms. The flowers emerge enclosed in reddish leaves, which turn green as they unfurl. Rue anemones look especially beautiful interspersed among Pennsylvania sedge, a low-growing native grass that forms clumps and colonies but isn’t overly aggressive. Pennsylvania sedge sends up its yellow-brown flower spikes a bit later. As the grass grows longer it arches gracefully.
Virginia bluebells bloom next. These mid-size ephemerals have smooth oval-shaped leaves and send up racemes of pendulous trumpet-shaped pale blue flowers. The buds are pink before opening, creating a lovely pastel display. Masses of Virginia bluebells look stunning anywhere in the garden. Plant them with hostas to cover the bare spots in summer. This is also the time for trilliums. Native trillium flowers are white, have three petals and are either upright or nodding. All trilliums have one thing in common: Each stalk has only three green leaves below its blossom. Trilliums form slow-growing clumps.
Though each of these woodland plants blooms for only a short while, together they make a spectacular and ongoing early spring show.
Two excellent local sources for native woodland plants are the Friends School Plant Sale from May 6-8 at the State Fair Grandstand (friendschoolplantsales.com) and Landscape Revival Native Plant Sale (saintpaulaudubon.org/events/2016) on June 4 at the Community Pavilion at the Roseville Cub Foods.
Sharon Shinomiya has gardened for 21 years in the Como Park neighborhood.