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These harbingers of spring delight me, and while individual types may be here today and gone tomorrow, the show continues over several months, with a large cast of characters. One thing that many of these perennial wildflowers have in common is an interesting history.
Some of the earliest blooms appear in March and include bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, hardy to Zone 4, and Mayapple, Podophyllum pelatatum, Zone 3. Even before they come into flower, their green and blue-green foliage against the dark brown forest floor is especially welcome.
The Mayapple flowers hang down under large umbrella-like leaves. Bloodroot blooms are delicate and shiny white, elegant but fleeting. I grow both of these perennials, but would also like to have the double-flowered selection of bloodroot called ‘Multiplex.’ I still remember years ago when I first saw this plant growing in the Wister Garden at Swarthmore College (known for the Scott Arboretum). It looks like a miniature rose and once you see it blooming, you, too, will want to add it to your garden. The origins of the name bloodroot or Sanguinaria, which means bleeding, come from how the Indians used the red juice from the underground stems for war paint and to dye clothing and baskets.
Another early bloomer is cutleaf toothwort, formerly known as Dentaria laciniatabut some authorities now call it Cardamine concatenata.
Personally, I prefer the old name but, whatever you call it, it’s still a good plant. Sometimes it’s referred to as pepperroots for the spicy radish-like flavor of the rhizome, recorded by some for use in salads. Here it is paired with the trout lily, Erythronium americanumin, the garden.
For a colorful combination that appears usually in April, Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, and yellow celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum, are easy to grow and disappear after they flower, leaving room for ferns and other late bloomers.
According to native plant expert, George Sanko, these ephemerals are “living in the fast lane.” Because they need sun to grow, they come up in early spring and go through their sexual life cycle and die back before the deciduous canopy puts out its new leaves for the season. If you don’t pay attention, they disappear (just the top growth, right before your eyes). Although it’s true, that once they die back no top growth is visible, the roots are busy storing up sugars for a repeat performance next year.
Because they disappear, once they bloom, it’s a good idea to plant spring ephemerals in combination with plants like ferns that leaf out after these perennial wildflowers bloom. In this important role, ferns serve as a marker and fill the empty space for summer. This will help you avoid planting other plants on top of existing plants. Native azaleas and oakleaf hydrangea both make good companions for these early spring bloomers, growing happily in similar conditions. Trees to consider for the same or similar setting include selections of native dogood, Cornus floridaand, and redbuds, Cercis canadensis.