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Spring Colour from Hardy Perennials
by Niki Jabbour
April 1, 2000

Spring is in the air. Its impending arrival is announced by the cheery crocus blossoms pushing their way up through the earth, and more often than not, the snow. Spring is found in the bright nodding flowers of the daffodils and the large fragrant blooms of the hyacinths. Spring flowering bulbs are not the only heralds of the season though, as there are also many hardy perennials that brighten our gardens and revitalize our souls when winter retreats.

Perhaps one of the sweetest signs of spring is the first sight of a delicate primrose. There are many varieties of primroses, most offering a long blooming period that begins in April and can extend well into May. As they are native to woodland and stream areas, they thrive when planted in moist shady spots - a great perennial for those areas of the garden with less-than-ideal conditions. Depending upon the variety, primroses offer a large colour range including butter yellow, wine red, pure white and deep purple, not to mention some bi-coloured combinations as well.

A favourite primrose of mine is Primula denticulata, commonly known as the drumstick primrose. This very early blooming plant produces 10" high perfectly round balls of tiny blossoms with bright centers. They are cloaked in shades of lilac, deep purple and pure white, just to mention a few. Another popular variety is Primula veris, better known as cowslip. These non-fuss primroses offer abundant blooms in yellow, orange and scarlet hues.

With their rich green foliage and delightful purple or white flowers, sweet violets are another sure sign of spring. A favourite for children's bouquets, these low growing plants are best used as a groundcover in a partially shaded spot or under trees. As they have a tendency to be invasive, ensure your chosen site will allow them to roam at their leisure. An intriguing variety to try is Viola sororia 'Freckles', which boasts unusual white flowers that are heavily speckled with purple spots.

Pulmonaria is a truly unique and enduring plant that will grace your garden for many years. Its fascinating, often spotted foliage is only surpassed by its delicate sprays of showy bell-shaped flowers. Commonly known as lungwort or Bethlehem sage, this is a plant ideal for a semi-shade garden.

Perhaps the most recognized lungwort species is Pulmonaria saccharata. Its large leaves are covered in both spots and small hairs that contrast well when planted next to hosta or daylilies. A popular variety is P. saccharata 'Sissinghurst White' that features attractive white flowers and showy, heavily spotted leaves. P. saccharata 'Mrs. Moon' also has large leaves, but it's flowers open in shades of blue and violet.

The enchanting fragrance of lily-of-the-valley never fails to bring back childhood memories. In early May the bright green leaves unfurl to reveal the 8" tall stems of small flowers. The flowers are composed of small, white nodding bells that seem to resemble tiny fairy hats. This low-growing, hardy perennial is best used as a ground cover under trees or along a shady slope. As with so many other spring perennials, lily-of-the-valley also thrives in moist, shady conditions.

Another childhood favourite, bleeding heart is a welcome sight to any winter-weary gardener. The familiar flowers are held high above the delicately cut foliage and are frequently found in the traditional white and pink combination, as well as pure white. These hardy plants require minimal care and thrive in either sun or shade. They are best planted from a rhizome (root) in early spring or late fall and once established, will bloom unfailingly for years to come.

Other early blooming plants to try in your garden include forget-me-nots, helleborus, rockcress and perennial alyssum. For more ideas explore your local garden centers and nurseries, visit friends and neighbours with green thumbs, and pour over garden books, magazines and catalogues.

Come spring, tulips, daffodils and other such flowering bulbs often take center stage, but one mustn't overlook the beauty and value that many hardy perennials offer. Their bright colours, charming blossoms and enduring familiarity are always a welcome sight after the seemingly endless winter.

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