Justin W. Hancock

Five Fab Plants for Early Spring Color in Shade

I had the opportunity to spend some time in the yard this weekend and enjoyed beautiful blooms right now from some favorite early perennials. If you’re looking to add a spot of color in your landscape, try these easy-growing plants!

Hellebore

King of the early-spring shade garden, hellebore (Helleborus) is a deer- and rabbit-resistant perennial that opens up beautiful blooms in shades of white, cream, pink, red, and purple. Many have dark green, leathery leaves that are evergreen and look great in areas with winters a little more mild than what we see here in Iowa. Some hellebores offer foliage that bears a beautiful silvery overlay; others show off fancy double blooms with two or three times the normal number of petals.

Need another reason to love it? The sepals stay looking good even after the petals fade, so hellebores look as thought they’re in bloom for months.

Note: The reason hellebore is deer and rabbit resistant is that all parts of this plant are highly poisonous.

Vinca

Also called periwinke, vinca (Vinca minor) often blooms alongside the crocus. It blooms of shades of purple, blue, and white — and many varieties bear attractive white- or gold-variegated foliage. One of my favorite varieties is ‘Sterling Silver’, which grows a little more slowly than the other varieties under my big sugar maple, but is worth the patience because its dark green leaves are edged in bright white — and contrast beautifully with the soft violet-blue flowers. I’ve also seen a very fun variety  that offers violet-purple flowers with extra petals, so they almost look like miniature roses or camellias. Vinca is very hardy, resists drought well, and is rarely browsed on by deer or rabbits.

Note: This low groundcover can be aggressive when it’s happy, so be sure to plant it where it has room to roam. Also, in some areas, vinca is considered an invasive species and should not be planted. Check local restrictions before adding this spring-blooming perennial to your yard.

Bergenia

One of those great plants a lot of gardeners have never heard of, Bergenia is also evergreen. In fact, most winters the foliage takes on tones of red and purple and is quite attractive. The pink, purple, or white flowers come in early spring, on stalks well above the foliage. This is a particularly nice perennial to plant with early bulbs such as Chionodoxa or Scilla.

Surprisingly, bergenia has never been nibbled on by deer and rabbits in my yard. The leaves are thick and rubbery, so the texture may turn off the pests. Or perhaps I’ve just been lucky….

By the way: Bergenia also sometimes goes by the name pigsqueak because if you fold a leaf in half and rub the two flaps together, the rubbery texture makes a cute little squeaking sound!

Bloodroot

One of the charming woodland wildflowers I grew up with in northern Minnesota, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) is ultra-hardy does a great job of spreading without being a pain. The white, daisy-like flowers appear right away in spring as the leaves unfurl. That fun foliage is deeply lobed, and as a child, I thought it looked like some kind of monster’s footprint.

I know the common name bloodroot doesn’t make the plant sound so appealing, but it earned that moniker because the roots have an orange-red sap that can stain your fingers.

Wood Poppy

A charming woodland wildflower, woodland poppy (also called celadine poppy — Stylophorum diphyllum) shares bright yellow blooms with us. It blooms longer than most of its early-spring companions; I’ve seen the yellow flowers appear as late as June. The yellow blooms are a great contrast to the blue-green foliage, and to other cool-color spring flowers such as Virginia bluebells, lungwort, and white bleeding heart.