Signs of spring have been slow in coming this season, making them all the more precious as they unfold.
Woodland wildflowers are among the most beloved harbingers of spring, and they will soon be making an appearance.
For most of the gardening season, shaded spots are cool, quiet and subdued. It takes energy from sunlight to produce flowers, so foliage dominates these places. Before trees leaf out in early spring, however, woodland spaces are bathed in sunshine. Wildflowers are uniquely adapted to take advantage of this brief time in the sun, a small window of opportunity to brighten these spaces with flowers.
These woodland beauties fall into two categories, spring ephemerals and those that persist through the season.
Ephemerals are plants that flourish during that brief bask in the sunshine.
But as soon as the trees leaf out fully and begin to draw the spring moisture from the ground beneath them, they quickly die back to the ground for the season.
Among the most familiar of these is spring beauty (Claytonia) with petite pink blooms on wispy, slender trailing stems. Trout lily has lovely yellow flowers on slender stalks, above broad bronze-spotted leaves that suggest its name. Virginia bluebells sport broad green leaves and arching stalks with an abundance of dangling blue bell-shaped flowers.
Two relatives of the bleeding heart provide delicate blooms against finely cut foliage.
Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) has snow white flowers that look like puffed up bloomers with lace at the ankles. Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis) is named for the small yellow corn-like tubers that grow on its roots. Its blooms are white, but with the heart-shaped form more typical of the genus.
Treat these plants as you would traditional spring bulbs like tulips, daffodils, hyacinth and crocus.
Enjoy the flower display, and allow the foliage to grow on, feeding the root system to carry the plants through their long dormancy. When leaves begin to yellow and look tatty, you may trim them off, or just allow them to fade away and become overshadowed by the other perennials in the garden.
Better for our garden display, of course, are those woodland plants that will stick around for the summer. Even these plants may duck into an early sleep if stressed by heat and drought, so a little pampering during extreme conditions will be well-rewarded.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria candensis) is named for its fleshy roots that ooze red sap if broken. Its flowers are snow white and complement broad, gray-green leaves. Look for the double-flowered Multiplex or Plena, as the blossoms last two to three times longer than the standard form.
Trillium is one of the most beloved, with its broad, three-petal white flowers that age to a dusty rose. Our local native species, grandiflorum, is truly the most spectacular available. Red trillium has smaller maroon flowers and yellow and toad shade trilliums have striking foliage mottled in silver or russet, respectively, but smaller yellow or red blooms that tip up instead of spreading outward.
The flowers of mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) are difficult to spot, hidden beneath distinctive leaves that emerge coppery and expand to medium green umbrellas up to a foot across, making a lovely ground cover at woodland’s edge.
Appreciate woodland wildflowers in their natural environment, and never dig wild plants to bring home. Fortunately, we can obtain plants for our gardens from local garden centers or mail order. Look for plants labeled as nursery-propagated, or those sourced from organizations that rescue wild plants from construction and development sites.
Make a point to walk the woods this spring and enjoy these beauties in their brief, but glorious season.