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Early Flowering Perennials
by Jan Mather
November 10, 1999

For devoted prairie gardeners-as for compulsive golfers-much pleasure lies in the anticipation of spring. Dreary cold winter days dissolve into lighter mornings and evenings, and drifts of snowdrop anemones, bluebells and primroses, hint of the drama yet to unfold.

If you've always thought that the gardening season doesn't begin until the long weekend in May, you're in for a pleasant surprise. There is great variety among the early flowering perennials that will extend the enjoyment of the prairie's brief, but delightful spring. Many of which can be planted as soon as the soil has warmed.

For naturalizing under shrubs and trees, in sun or shade, consider snowdrop anemones (Anemone sylvestris). These Siberian natives produce an abundant display of nodding, pure white, scented 5 centimeter (2 inch) flowers, which are held above mounds of dark green foliage. They reach a height of 30-40 centimeters (12-15 inches), spread readily by underground stems and self-seed. If they become too aggressive in the garden, divide them in early spring and share the bounty with friends.

In the wild garden there are few perennials as lovely as Virginia bluebells, or Mertensia virginica, as they are botanically known. These showy early bloomers are about 60 centimeters (2 feet) in height, and produce nodding clusters of- you guessed it- bells, which are a pretty gentian blue. They prefer a rich, moist, organic soil and partial shade. To camouflage its foliage, which dies to the ground by midsummer, plant next to later-flowering perennials such as daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) or cranesbill geraniums (Geranium spp.).

In Shakespeare's era, primroses (Primula spp.) were considered the flower of imagination, and believed to be magical, healthful and useful as a beauty treatment. But don't let their poetic past and delicate nature fool you. In a sheltered location with even moisture, plenty of mulch and an excessive amount of positive attitude, prairie gardeners can also enjoy these harbingers of spring. Two species to try are the drumstick primrose (Primula denticulata) and the Siebold primrose (Primula sieboldii). Like other primroses, they are most effective planted en masse in partial shade.

Another early flowering perennial is the Cypress spurge (Euphorbia cyparissias), which have narrow leaves and clusters of tiny, greenish-yellow bracts. Although it doesn't have quite the colourful ancestry of primroses, it gets top marks for its ability to thrive as a drought-tolerant ground cover.

Rock gardens shouldn't be without early colour either. Good choices include moss phlox (Phlox subulata), which produces low mat-forming white, pink, lavender blue, or carmine red flowers, and its white flowering companion rockcress (Arabis alpina). If you prefer the warm colour range, try perennial alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis). It will happily spill masses of bright golden flowers in full sun in well-drained soil.

Jan Mather - author of Designing Alberta Gardens, The Prairie Garden Planner and The Prairie Rose Garden Email: Jan Mather

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