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Perennial Spring Beauties for Gorgeous Gardens

By: Teri Keith

Some of the prettiest Lenten rose varieties have pretty spotted flowers, like ‘Confetti Cake’. Some are even double.

There are many perennial flowers that come up in early spring, to let us know the beauty of our spring gardens has arrived. After a long year of COVID-19, and the recent terrible weather across much of the US, I want to boost my spirits with as much garden color as I can.  Other gardeners that I know plan to do the same. Here are some of the best spring perennials that I grow and enjoy each year in my Indiana garden. These are sure bloomers with lots of color!

Lenten Rose

‘Fire and Ice’ is one of the prettiest double Helleborus orientalis varieties.

Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis and hybrids, USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 9) are among the first flowers to bloom, from February to April depending on where you live.  The large leathery leaves are evergreen. Each plant produces several stems of flowers. The blooms can reach up to 3.5 inches across. These range from single blooms, to rose-shaped doubles. Some are single-colored, while others have the most spectacular spots, such as ‘Confetti Cake’. The yellow and maroon bicolored Honeymoon®Spanish Flare is a favorite this year, in addition to ‘Fire and Ice‘, which is a white picotee with dark-rose edges.

In spite of the common name, Helleborus are not real roses. Instead, they are closely related to buttercups. They like shade, and moist, well-drained, soil. Plant them in spring, being sure to add Black Gold Garden Soil into the planting hole for added organic matter and fertility. Keep the crown of the plant just under the soil, for better blooming.  For nicer leaves, cut back the old ratty ones, at the end of winter. Water more from spring to fall since it is the primary growing period. Lenten roses are generally 2-feet tall and wide. All plant parts are toxic, so be careful if you have pets and small children. (Click here to learn more about Lenten rose toxicity.)

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia bluebells are beautiful native ephemerals that naturalize over time. Native bees and butterflies love them!

An old spring favorite is a native plant, Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica, Zones 3 to 8).  In spring, it sends up 2-foot stems, with numerous, nodding purplish-pink buds, that turn into bright, trumpet-shaped bluebells. They naturalize and like shade and moist, rich soil. The whole plant goes dormant as summer approaches, so it is best to plant them in the fall among other perennials that will cover the holes that they leave behind.

Lungwort

Raspberry Splash has multicolored spring flowers.

Lungwort (Pulmonaria species and hybrids, Zones 3 to 7) derives its name from the long-ago days when it was thought that a plant, with similar leaves to a body part (like the lung), would be beneficial in treating that body part. Lungwort has spotted leaves, like the spots on the lung, thus its common name.  At one time they tried to use it to treat lung ailments, even though it is  Lungwort is toxic. (Click here to learn more.) I am happy that the days of Medieval medicine are gone forever…

Pulmonarias have become very popular over the last 25 years, so there a lot of varieties available.  They are grown both for their leaves as well their beautiful flowers.  The flowers range from deep blue, to sky blue, deep rose, and light pink. The lovely plants are about 16-inches tall when in bloom, give or take, and like full shade and moist, rich garden soil. Cut back any bad-looking leaves through the season and watered them well through summer to keep the leaves looking beautiful.  Here are some of my favorite varieties:  ‘Silver Bouquet’ has flowers that change from coral to pink to violet, and the long, pointed leaves are pure silver.  ‘Raspberry Splash’, from Proven Winners, has deep rose flowers and leaves with large silver spots.  Also from Proven Winners comes ‘Spot On’ with its speckly silver leaves and deep pink buds that change into a dark, intense blue.

Columbine

McKana Giant Columbines come in lots of colors! (Image by Jessie Keith)

Columbines (Aquilegia hybrids, Zones 3 to 8) are some of my favorite late spring flowers, with clumps of scalloped leaves that send up narrow stems topped with shooting-star-shaped flowers with long nectaries at the base of the petals. The slender stems get 12 to 20 inches tall, depending on the variety, and support numerous flowers. Each flower has spiked petals of red, yellow, rose, purple, blue, or pink, and inner petals that are usually a lighter version of the same color. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees love them.

Columbines are popular, so there are many different varieties available. Most do best in full to partial sun, though some species prefer partial shade, such as the native red eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis).  The McKana Giants comprise an excellent columbine mix that is easy for new gardeners to try. The tall stems bear huge flowers in many colors, and they are easily grown from seed. The western native golden spur columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) is an uncommonly good garden species with its large, long-spurred golden flowers.

Another reason that I like columbines so well is that they randomly cross and reseed easily, with new hybrid plants blooming each year. So, you never know what you are going to see in the garden at flowering time.

Barrenwort

‘Orangekönigin’ is an especially pretty barrenwort with its numerous pretty pale-orange flowers.

Barrenwort, or Bishop’s Hat, (Epimedium species and hybrids, Zones 3 to 9) is a low-growing plant, with delicate flowers, on narrow 12-to-18 inch stalks, held above heart-shaped leaves.  In spring they may produce flowers of lilac, pink, yellow, orange, white, or rose, depending on the plant. With some varieties, the leaves are deep red with green veins or are edged in purple.  I consider it to be a slow-growing ground cover, excellent as a front-of-the-border plant in a shade garden. Barrenwort will tolerate dryer soil than most other shade perennials.  Some excellent varieties are the orange-flowered ‘Orangekönigin’, my first barrenwort, as well as the white-and-purple-flowered ‘Cherry Blossom’, double-flowered ‘Rose Queen’, and airy, yellow-flowered ‘Old Yeller’.  To keep the leaves looking good, cut back the old ones in late winter, or early spring.

When planting, remember to mix Black Gold Garden Soil with the existing soil that you dig up to give an extra boost to the plant, shake a little Premium Proven Winners Controlled Release Fertilizer along the soil surface, and you’ll be off to a good start for the gardening season.

About Teri Keith


Garden columnist, Teri Keith, has gardened for over 50 years in her home state of Indiana. She served as a longtime IGC nursery manager specializing in annuals and perennials in Bloomington, Indiana and still gardens with passion. Each year she plants and maintains over 50 flower containers, many gardens, and a large collection of lilacs.

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