Springtime flowers

By Tom Seymour | Feb 18, 2016
Photo by: Tom Seymour The spring-blooming wildflower bloodroot is a member of the poppy family.

Springtime heralds the arrival of many different wildflowers, among them bloodroot, Sanguinaria Canadensis. This striking plant favors semi-shade and rich woodland loam. A member of the poppy family, bloodroot has delicate flowers, the petals of which hardly last a full week before falling off, one by one.

Bloodroot sap was once used medicinally for skin problems, but it is far too caustic for such uses today. It’s easy to see how the plant got its common name. Just break a stem and the freshly-exposed raw part of the stem oozes a bright orange sap.

Bloodroot leaves, which resemble grape leaves, fold up at night, clasping the new blossom. When touched by sunlight, the leaves flatten out, but on cloudy days, they remain in their clasping position. All in all, bloodroot is a wonderfully interesting and ethereal addition to the springtime garden. Be sure to buy only nursery-propagated plants.

Tree flowers

Trees, too, have pretty springtime flowers; some, like apple and cherry, are beloved by gardeners. Others are barely noticed, but have intrinsic beauty nonetheless. For instance, red maple, Acer rubrum, flaunts scarlet blossoms. Most people only see the overall effect, as when viewing a stand of red maple. But upon close inspection, red maple flowers are complex and intriguing.

Some of the earliest “flowers” are not flowers at all, but catkins. Pussy willow, both the wild variety and the cultivated forms, regales us with hundreds of sleek, soft catkins, the “pussy” part of pussy willow. Remember, if picking pussy willow for a bouquet, don’t put water in the vase, since that will cause the cut twig to continue growing. If left too long, a vase full of pussy willow cuttings will begin to take root.

So instead, just place the cut pussy willow switches in an empty vase. They will eventually dry out, but won’t change one bit in appearance and if kept in a room relatively free of dust, will last until the following spring when it is  time to pick a new batch of pussy willows.

And who could fail to appreciate a magnolia tree in full bloom? The large, sweetly-scented flowers appear prior to the leaves. Here in Midcoast Maine, late April is about the right time to find blooming magnolias.

Like bloodroot, magnolia petals fall, one by one, until the ground below is littered with single white fallen petals.

I mentioned apple and cherry blossoms earlier. Most everyone appreciates the beauty and sweet scent of fruit tree blossoms, but few take time to pick a bouquet. Perhaps people feel that picking blossom-laden twigs is akin to pruning and might harm the tree. But with a healthy, full tree, the loss of a bouquet’s worth of flowering twigs has little effect.

Besides that, the aroma from such a bouquet quickly fills a room.

Familiar flowers

Gardeners have lots of old-time favorite flowers to choose from. One, a wildflower that finds its way on lawns, gets mowed along with the grass. But some people dedicate special spots to the ubiquitous common blue violet, Viola papilionacea. Others, those who really appreciate the color and form of violets, cultivate named species such as Royal Robe, Royal Elk and Rosina.

When given at least partial sun and a minimum of care (violets will prosper even in nutrient-deprived soils), violets can brighten our springtime gardens for many years to come.

Next, what says “spring” better than brightly-blooming primroses? It’s too bad, but most of the flashy primroses, Primula species, sold in supermarkets and hardware stores are a bit too tender to persist when planted outside. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. I’ve had luck with setting out primroses I bought from a local greenhouse. These were displayed as houseplants, disposable little pots of multi-colored blooms. For these beauties to survive, I had to water as needed and in winter, the primroses required a mulch of fir boughs. One of my primroses even put on a second bloom in fall, an unexpected bonus.

For hardier primrose species, visit your local nursery or garden center and check out either common primrose, P. vulgaris or drumstick primroses, P. denticulate. With moderate care, these should do well in almost any Midcoast Maine garden.

Flowering shrubs

Most flowering shrubs, with several notable exceptions, put on their color show in mid-spring. Two of those exceptions are forsythia and February daphne. Of these, the daphne blooms earliest of all.

February daphne, Daphne mezereum, an introduced plant that has small, wedge-shaped leaves and pinkish-lavender-colored flowers, blooms in mid-April, which is very early for any flowering shrub here in Midcoast Maine.

The sessile (lacking their own stem and growing directly from the plant’s stalk) flowers grow in clumps and are extremely fragrant. It does require getting quite close to the flowers for a good sniff, but the heady fragrance is reward enough for bending down.

Even better, daphne is hardy as can be. In fact, my daphne plant accidentally got cut down while mowing around the flower bed. Even though it was the plant’s first year, it immediately put out new shoots and now, two years later, has fully rebounded. However, I keep a tomato cage over my daphne in order to avoid any future mowing mistakes. When the little (daphne is a small shrub) shrub outgrows the tomato cage, then it can stand alone, on its own.

Next, what can anyone say about forsythia, Forsythia intermedia, that hasn’t already been said? Well, it’s still OK to extol the virtues of this ubiquitous, tough but showy shrub. In late April or early May, forsythia shrubs begin showing their yellow flowers. Mass plantings of forsythia present a dazzling, almost artificial blast of color. Even those who dislike forsythia cannot help but gaze at it.

Forsythias do well in most soils. I say “most,” because I once planted a forsythia in heavy clay soil and it failed. And yes, I amended the soil in the hole before setting the plant, but that apparently wasn’t enough. But most of the time, forsythia is a no-fail shrub.

Forsythia can make a nearly impenetrable barrier. Want to re-route the paths used by neighborhood children or neighbors' pets? Plant a row of forsythia. In only a few years, the plant will present a barrier that is very hard to get through. And low-hanging branches that touch the ground will take root, making it virtually impossible for human, dog or even cat to penetrate.

Forsythia does best in full sunlight. When planted in semi-shade, the shrub may fail to flower or at the most, flowers will appear only on the bottom, near ground- evel.

Tom’s tips

One of the good things about buying potted plants in spring is that they can be set out immediately and with a bit of luck, will bloom that first season. It’s best to choose plants that have not yet begun to flower, but have lots of flower buds just waiting to open.

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