Now why on earth is Team Fine Foliage extolling the praises of FLOWERS you may ask? Because THESE spring blooming perennials have outstanding foliage, either by virtue of color or texture, that continues to add value to the landscape through fall or even beyond. (Part-timers that peter out mid-summer don’t qualify for this list). Intrigued?
Jack Frost Siberian Bugloss
Landscape design by Edith Silbert, as featured in Gardening with Foliage First (Timber Press, 2017)
First to bloom, last to fade. That means color, bold texture and remarkable performance from March to late October in my garden.
Forget-me-not type flowers are perfect for diminutive posies, blooming for well over a month. The silver veined green leaves expand to form large mounds of heart shaped gorgeousness – stunning with ferns, hostas and all your other favorite shade perennials. They also work exceptionally well in containers.
Still not convinced? Think FREE PLANTS. Those clumps keep getting bigger and it is really easy to separate out small plants to add to other areas of your garden. Why not create a “river” of these as Adrian Bloom does in his world-renowned garden?
Check out all the fine details of this stunning perennial here.
I first got to know pasqueflower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) in England, finding the purple flowers enchanting and invariably in bloom at Easter time. Many decades and a cross-Atlantic voyage later, I realized that there was far more to this spring perennial than just the flowers.
The lacy, fern-like foliage is a wonderful textural addition to the garden, and is evergreen in mild winters for me. Children of all ages will be fascinated by the fuzz of silky-white hairs that cover the stems and buds creating a halo effect that adds to the charm. Even after the flowers fade, don’t be too quick to nip them off – check out the seedheads!
Varieties are now available with red, purple, rose or lavender flowers. Use them to line a pathway where you can enjoy the details up close. The delicate foliage looks good with bolder textures such as lungwort (shown below) and variegated winter daphne
Although these don’t start blooming until mid-spring, Cheddar Pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus) make up for lost time, often re-blooming in fall. Their spicy, fragrance is unforgettable.
Colors are mostly in the pink family, with plenty of named varieties to choose from but my favorite is Firewitch. Intense magenta-pink flowers are set off by the cushion of blue-grey foliage to perfection. Shearing off the spent flowering stalks in mid-summer will encourage the re-bloom; well worth a few minutes on your hands and knees with a pair of scissors!
But that foliage is swoon-worthy alone. Evergreen, compact, drought tolerant, deer resistant and rabbit resistant, the clumps expand slowly to become a weed-smothering groundcover that thrives in a well drained sunny area (but tolerates my amended clay soil, despite references to suggest otherwise).
Combine it with foliage in shades of silver for a romantic look e.g. Bella Grigio lamb’s ears, or add drama with deep chocolate foliage such as Little Devil ninebark or Spilled Wine weigela. Mmmm.
Now I’m not talking about those psychedelic horrors you see outside the grocery stores! Such in-your-face colors scream too loud for my tastes.
I’m talking here about the true native (to the UK) primrose – a soft buttermilk yellow that blends easily with other plants , is reliably perennial, and encourages chubby children’s fingers to pluck a few stems for a thimble-sized table display. The flowers even have a faint scent too.
I’ve included them here as you may be surprised to learn that the crinkled green foliage grows into a large hosta-sized mound by mid-summer and those clumps are easy to divide in fall or spring to start your own primrose-lined pathway. Unlike hosta, however, they are deer and rabbit resistant. (Oddly enough the rabbits nip the flower buds off my cowslip (Primula veris) but never these).
I mingle mine with a carpet of Georgia Blue veronica (just starting to bloom) in the woodland garden
Combination top right featured in our book Fine Foliage (St. Lynn’s Press, 2013)
Another favorite from my childhood growing up in England – lungwort (Pulmonaria sp.). One of the common names for this perennial is “soldiers and sailors” on account of the flowers changing color as they age, from pink to blue.
The variety shown above, inherited when we bought the garden and house) is most likely Mrs. Moon but there are many others to choose from with flowers in deep cobalt blue or lavender-pink.
As you’d expect, the flowers are only the opening act for what becomes an exceptionally long season of interest thanks to the silver and green spotted foliage which grows into monster sized, deer and rabbit resistant clumps. The degree of silver patterning varies – some varieties have an almost entirely silver leaf. Explore some of the options here.
Although essentially low maintenance, these tips will help you get the most from the plant:
- After blooming, sheer the entire plant (leaves and flowers) down to the crown. It will regrow within two weeks and the new foliage is much less likely to succumb to mildew by mid-summer
- In early spring cut away any winter damaged foliage for a cleaner appearance
This perennial is from the borage family – you will feel the similarity in the leaves, so wear gloves to avoid irritation.
Recommended for the shade garden in moisture retentive soil, I also grow it in almost full sun with no irrigation as you can see by the combination with the silver artmesia above. It does fine with just some supplemental water after exceptionally hot summer days – experiment in your own garden. You may be surprised. (My soil is amended clay and mulched)
Others high performing spring bloomers to consider
Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
Barrenwort (Epimedium sp.)
What’s YOUR favorite?
Leave a comment here or on our Facebook page to tell us! And remember you can ideas using these and many more in our books Fine Foliage and Gardening with Foliage First.
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