Spring is the renaissance season—a time of rebirth and new growth—when flowers, fresh foliage, and transformation abound. For gardeners and plant lovers, it’s an occasion for new hope, new dreams, and, (of course) selecting new plants! The Great Plant Picks website is a great place to start. As many of you know, Great Plant Picks (GPP) is the primary educational program of the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle, Washington. GPP volunteer horticulturists from Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia meet three times a year to select an outstanding and easy-to-grow ensemble of bulbs, bamboos, conifers, ferns, perennials, shrubs, and trees for the maritime Pacific Northwest. This year’s collection highlights those plants that shine in spring.
This month of transition from winter’s slumber to awakening springtime and flowering bulbs unquestionably heralds the season. Petite Crocus tommasinianus bloom in a range of colors from pale silver-lavender to dark purple, Erythronium ‘Pagoda’ nods its yellow flowers in the cool breeze, and Leucojum vernum flowers look like lily of the valley with a tiny splash of green or chartreuse at the bloom tips. The bicolor blossoms of Muscari latifolium, periwinkle on top and dark violet below, golden trumpets of Narcissus ‘February Gold’, and N. ‘Tête-à-tête’ bring strong, clear color to early spring beds. These bulbs reliably return year after year to brighten the early days of spring.
Of course, one of the prima donnas on the spring horticultural stage is Helleborus ×hybridus, but without being temperamental or self-important. Okay, maybe it is a little bit of a drama queen, but with the range of gorgeous, saturated colors now available, who would deny this wonderful perennial center stage in the March garden? Purchase plants in bloom to select for the superlative colors.
Early flowering magnolias are in their prime this month such as Magnolia denudata with pristine, tulip-like white flowers; M. kobus known for its delicate blossoms the color of fresh milk, sometimes tinged with light pink; and M. ×kewensis ‘Wada’s Memory’, a cultivar named here in the Pacific Northwest, which blooms in a profusion of snowy white.
The rose may be the queen of garden shrubs, but rhododendron is king. The climate in this part of North America is conducive to growing a wide range of this regal plant genus. In April they begin to come into their own, unfurling blossoms in glowing shades of red on Rhododendron ‘Grace Seabrook’, ‘Double Winner’, and ‘Taurus’. Three mid-season bloomers with bicolor flowers—all different—are R. ‘Naselle’ having large, fluted flowers of melon shading to custard at the edges with burnt-sugar spotting within, R. ‘Manda Sue’ reminiscent of apple blossoms with pale pink petals edged with cherry-red, and R. ‘Elsie Watson’ with ruffled red-violet picotee edges that diffuse into white toward a darker star at the center.
The Alpina Group of Clematis will provide you with a spectacular mid-spring show of flowers from several early blooming vines. Clematis alpina ‘Pamela Jackman’ and C. ‘Helsingborg’ both have a surfeit of nodding purple flowers, the latter cultivar being slightly darker. Pastel pink flowers etched with rosy pink veins adorn C. ‘Pink Flamingo’ while C. ‘Constance’ has rich rose-pink flowers. All of these Clematis are quite restrained in growth—plus, after flowering, fluffy, white seed heads dangle among the green foliage in late summer.
Flowering cherries and seviceberries offer a breathtaking overhead canopy of blossoms in April. Prunus ×yedoensis is the Yoshino cherry. This celebrated tree is planted around the tidal basin in Washington, DC, where, in springtime, a multitude of fluffy, white flowers adorn the branches. For those who love pink, there is Prunus ×yedoensis ‘Akebono’, a cultivar with masses of large, semi-double light pink flowers. Not to be outdone by the cherries are Amelanchier ×grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’ and A. ×grandiflora ‘Cole’s Select’. These two hybrid serviceberries are almost interchangeable and both bloom with abundance like the stars of the Milky Way.
As the season progresses, more warm days bring a flush of new foliage, flowers, and fresh scents. Several hardy geraniums provide color and texture in the May garden. With flower colors ranging from white blushed pink to magenta, Geranium ×cantabrigiense and its cultivars form a dense mat as do the species and varieties of G. macrorrhizum. (The foliage of the latter exudes an enthralling spicy scent when the sun shines on it.) Varieties with a more mounding shape include G. renardii ‘Tcschelda’, G. ‘Philippe Vapelle’, and G. cinereum ‘Laurence Flatman’. The first two have lavender blossoms etched with dark purple veins and the latter has prominent red-purple veining set against a white background infused with magenta.
Although the blossoms of daphnes are diminutive, they make up for size in number and intoxicating fragrance in late springtime. Daphne ×transatlantica ‘Blafra’ ETERNAL FRAGRANCE™ and D. ×transatlantica ‘Jim’s Pride’ both have solid green leaves while D. ×burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ and D. ×transatlantica ‘Summer Ice’ each have varying degrees of attractive variegation. All are evergreen or semi-evergreen and have dainty white, white-flushed-pink, or pink flowers.
Orchids are enticing; however, only a few are hardy in the Pacific Northwest and, of those, even fewer are easily grown. Bletilla striata, a pseudobulb, is a champion on both fronts plus the beguiling magenta flowers are a sight to behold. Also blooming in May are two captivating species of Arisaema: A. sikokianum and A. triphyllum. Although arising from more tuber-like structures than true bulbs, these woodland-loving herbaceous perennials have unusually shaped flowers consisting of a “hood” over a fleshy “spike” that sits in a “vase.” Very distinctive! Camassia quamash and C. cusickii are Northwest native bulbs with beautiful lavendar-blue to violet-purple flowers that bloom later in the season. Another true bulb for late spring is Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus with a spicy fragrance emanating from the bright white petals and central orange-yellow cup.
These plants are but a very small selection of Great Plant Picks with which to celebrate the return of spring. For a complete listing of all GPP selections including detailed information on each variety visit the GPP website and be inspired for the awakening season.