Michelle Byrne Walsh is an editor at State-by-State Gardening, a master gardener and a member of the Garden Writers Association.

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Bloomin’ Early
by Michelle Bryne Walsh    

Which perennials are the first ones out of the ground? Here’s a list of March- and April-blooming perennials for the Midwest. 

March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. And by the end of March, Midwest gardeners have had it with snow and cold. So when temperatures start to warm up and we get that whiff of spring in the air, we cheer for those perennials that first appear in late March and April. These are our harbingers of spring.

Here are several early bird perennials that are reliably the first to bloom in our Midwest springtime. These perennials can be purchased in March or April at garden centers (usually in bloom) and planted immediately. Or make a list to add these to your beds later in the season for next year’s bloom.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Peppermint Ice'

Hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus, sometimes referred to as H. orientalis) — Hellebores are herbaceous perennials with about 15 species native to Europe and Asia. The most popular hellebores hardy in the Midwest are Helleborus x hybridus or Lenten roses. Varieties include doubles, semi-doubles and some with picotee edges and veins. Colors range from cream, yellow, pink, apricot, lime green, maroon and deep plum. Hellebores tolerate neutral to alkaline soils that are fertile, moist and rich in humus. They prefer shade or part shade and grow in clumps that are 18 to 24 inches tall and 24 to 30 inches. 

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) — The common name comes from the fact its roots have a red juice, which was used by Indians as a dye for clothing and war paint. Bloodroot is a native Midwest plant that blooms in March. It occurs naturally in moist woodlands. It has white daisy-like flowers with deeply scalloped foliage. The leaves clasp the stem before slowly unfurling. It has a ground cover-like colonizing habit. And it grows to 10 inches tall in full shade with humus-rich, neutral-to-acid, moist soil. 

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) — Spring beauty looks like little stars. It is a woodland ephemeral, meaning that it is a plant that dies back to the ground by summer. It likes moist, neutral-to-acidic, humus-rich soil. This is a demure front-of-the-border plant with narrow leaves and small white to pink five-petaled flowers. Grows to 6 inches tall, needs part shade and moist soil. 

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) — In early April, Pasque flower sends up large bright violet flowers on thick downy stems. Foliage is grayish-green, finely-cut and lightly furry. Leaves emerge when the flowers are finishing up, and the mounding habit of interesting foliage provides season-long interest. Grows to 7-12 inches tall, forms a mounded shape, likes sun and moderately moist soil. 

Basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis) — Basket-of-gold is a bright spot of yellow in the spring garden. It features deep yellow-gold colored flowers that float over silvery green foliage. This plant likes drier conditions and it is fairly easy to grow. Cut it back after it blooms. Grows to 10 inches tall with a mounding habit; needs good drainage and full sun. 

Baneberry (Actaea spp.) — Two different native species of Actaea grow in the Midwest, Actaea pachypoda, or white baneberry, also called “doll’s eyes” because its white berries have black dots that look like eyeballs, and Actaea rubra, or red baneberry. They are often found wild in woodlands. Their clusters of white blooms are very loose and airy, very attractive. Grows to 2 feet in full to part shade, native to moist woodlands and thickets. 

Cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma) — This is a true multi-season perennial, because the bracts are the colorful portion. It is a mounding, clump-forming perennial which typically grows in a dome (or cushion) shape. Grows to 24 inches tall, drought tolerant, likes full to part sun and moist soil with average fertility. 

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) — This is a native plant of the Midwest prairies, common on sandy or dry sites. Its common name refers to the smoky appearance of the fruiting heads’ purple feathery plumes. Grows to 12 inches tall, full sun, average to dry soil. 

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) — Virginia bluebells are native plants that have pink buds that open to purplish blue bell-shaped flowers. It’s a spring ephemeral, so its foliage will die back in mid-summer. Be sure to interplant or over plant it with something else so you don’t mistakenly dig it up. Try lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.), which also blooms early in the spring.” Grows to 2 feet, likes part shade and moist soil; naturalizes well. 

Pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia varieties) —The bell-shaped pink flowers and dark glossy evergreen leaves are reason enough to like this plant. It grows in a variety of  soils, and can be used as a ground cover. Grows to 2 feet tall, likes full to part sun. 

Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.) — Lungwort is mainly thought of as a foliage plant, so it carries its weight all season, but it also has bell-like pink or blue flowers in spring, too. Grows 8 to 24 inches tall, likes part to full shade and moist soil. 

Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) — Dutchman’s breeches blooms sooner than the better-known cousin bleeding heart. It has dainty white flowers held above the foliage. It is an ephemeral, so it will die down in summer. Common name refers to the blooms, which look like upside-down “breeches.” Grows to 10 inches in moist, filtered shade. 

Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) — Many gardeners love the heart-shaped foliage of this plant, and the French blue blooms are striking. The blooms last for three weeks or more. There are many varieties on the market today, including the variegated ‘Jack Frost’. Grows to 2 feet with mounding habit in full to part shade in dry shade gardens. 

Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) — Candytuft is often used in rock gardens, and it spills nicely over walls or containers. It has evergreen leaves, spreads widely and produces masses of snow-white flowers in April. Grows to 12 inches tall in full sun with moderate moisture. 

White trillum (Trillium grandiflorum)

Other Bloomin’ Spring Things

Here are some other April-blooming perennials you can plant now (or later for next year’s blooms).

Greek windflower (Anemone blanda)
Wall rock cress (Arabis caucasica)
Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabalis)
Bishop’s hat or barrenwort (Epimedium spp.)
Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata)
Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera)
Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)
Foam flower (Tiarella wherryi)
White trillum (Trillium grandiflorum

These plants are all hardy to Zones 5 and 6.


Photos courtesy of Michelle Byrne Walsh


Posted: 03/06/13   RSS | Print


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