Early May Blooms, Mixing Natives with Other Plants in the Shady Perennial Garden

9259In early spring many of the Midwestern woodland wildflowers bloom before the trees (mostly oaks) fully leaf out and create a shady canopy.  There are also a few garden perennials from other parts of the world that bring color in to the early May garden.  Let’s take a look a few that are at their peak of bloom right now. 

In the picture above, common violets intermingle with Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans).  Violets come in many shade of blue and purple, as well as yellow and bicolor blue and white.  The violets above were propagated from a naturally occurring population that had reddish purple coloration (difficult to capture in an image) that complements many other early bloomers, including Ruby Epimedium (Epimedium x rubrum), seen below.




The leaves emerge a bright chartreuse green on the Ruby Epimedium – planted where the morning sun highlights this stunning color.  The leaves turn a more standard green as they mature.  Epimedium sulfureum, a similar species, flowers  in yellow but does not seem to be as robust.  At a foot or so tall and wide, epimedium works well in part shade in groupings of five to nine (or more)  interplanted with other perennials. 

Trilliums, such at the White Trillium (T. grandiflorum) seen below, are often collected from the wild and sold in garden centers, there are, however, some ethical nurseries that propagate their plants from seed or divisions – easy to do, and should be purchased from those sources.  Timing is critical when collecting the seed, generally eight weeks past flowering, since the pods will eventually shatter and the seeds will drop to the ground – as long as the seeds are turning brown, they can be collected and planted in seed flats to expand a population of plants.


White Trillium, aka. Large Flowered Trillium – a easy to grow shade plant


Toad Trillium, T. sessile can have dark purple/black leaves as they emerge in the spring.

Trillium plants will fade after flowering and go dormant until reemerging the following spring, therefore it is best to plant them where the soil will not be disturbed – such as near the base of trees or large rocks.  Other native woodland plants such as Hepatica, seen below, actually send out their new leaves for the season right after flowering, and look great all summer, and stay green through the winter season, only fading the following spring.  Flowers, which range in color from pink, to white, to purpley blue, sometimes emerge as snow is still on the ground in late April.


Hepatica acutiloba now known as Anemone acutiloba, showing seed clusters

Rue Anemone, like hepatica, is a member of the short flowing buttercup family.  The flowers are pure white to slightly pink, with blue green leaves that remain throughout the summer if the soil does not dry out for an extended period.  Rue Anemone looks great tucked into nooks and crannies throughout the shade garden.  Leaves turn yellow in the fall months.



Rue Anemone, Anemone thalictroides aka, Thalictrum thalictroides.

Lenten Rose (Helleborus sp.) is native to Europe and blooms along with the native woodland flowers.  The large, coarse flowers can be an interesting complement to the other finer textured flowers in the shade garden.  These easy to grow perennials can be divided after flowering, by cutting apart divisions with a bread knife, to create more plants.


The flowers of Lenten Rose, ‘Ivory Queen’ last for several weeks

The low groundcover Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) is widely found growing in moist woods throughout Europe and Asia, it also mixes well with our Midwestern natives as seen below with Woodland Ginger (Asarum canadense). The leaves of both the Woodland Ginger and the Sweetwoodruff wil stay green all summer if the soil is kept moist during dry spells.


Wood Shield Fern (Dryopteris marginalis) and Christmas Fern (Polystichum achrosticoides) are two easy to grow evergreen ferns native to the Midwestern woods.  Wood Shield Fern’s, upright vase shaped growth, can reach two feet tall, while the Christmas Fern is more low spreading.  Below both are seen mixing well with Woodland Ginger (Asarum canadense), Wild Ramp (Allium tricoccum), and Woodland Geranium (Geranium maculatum) with its pink flowers just coming into bloom in Mid-May.


Christmas fern at lower left and Wood Shield Fern at upper right

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) is a neat low mounded woodland plant covered in sky blue flowers for a week, or so, in May.  The rest of the summer, the pinnate foliage looks great and work well, planted along the edge of the shade garden as a nice transition to lawn or other pathway materials.  The Jacob’s ladder often found in garden centers is a taller European variety, with variegated foliage – inferior in appearance to our Midwestern plants.


Polemonium reptans halfway through its bloom cycle

 Blue Wood Phlox can be found blooming at the same time as Jacob’s Ladder, and slightly after Jacob’s Ladder is finished blooming.  In May wiry flower stems shoot up a foot above the low evergreen foliage and put on a bright blue display that works well with other more sun tolerant Dutch bulbs such as Grape Hyacinth (Muscari sp.) and Tulips.  9453A mix of blues and whites in a rock garden I constructed at my home, gets plenty of sun in the spring, but is somewhat shaded by the overhanging Silver Maple in the summer:


9462In one part of the rock garden, the shade tolerant Sedum ternatum, native to Midwestern woods and limestone bluffs is just starting to put out its white, star shaped flowers.  The sedum stays evergreen the year around and works well as a groundcover in the shade garden.


Illinois Stonecrop, can be found on limestone bluffs as well as floodplains (Swink & Wilhelm)

Most sedums, this one included, can be propagated by pinching off a short stem and pushing the base of the stem into the ground where more plants are desired.  Occasional watering of the cuttings will promote quicker rooting.


Sedum ternatum with Blue Wood Phlox in the shade garden

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) is such a ubiquitous old fashioned perennial, that many gardeners are unaware that it also is a American woodland native – mostly found in flood plains, but very adaptable to well drained garden soils.  The charming bell-shaped blue flowers only last a week, then the plants begin to wane, turn yellow, and go dormant for the summer, it is therefore a good idea to note where these plants occur, so that the plants are not inadvertently disturbed while gardening in the summer months.  Interplanting Virginia Bluebells with others perennials that will help mask the fading foliage is something to consider as well.9438Virginia Bluebells can form large colonies by dropping its seeds in bare soil surrounding the mother plant, these volunteers are easily removed if desired.  The roots are fleshy and can be divided after the plants are finished blooming to create more plants.  Virginia Bluebells will do well in most decent garden soils.


A mass of Virginia Bluebells overtake the low evergreens when in bloom, only to quickly retreat with equal vigor

Another early blooming European native is the old fashioned Money Plant (Lunaria annua.)  Grown for the silver dollar sized papery seed pods (silicles) that are used in dried arrangements.  This plant will reseed around the mother plant, and in some soil types this may be a nuisance.  In my experience, the mother plants have survived many winters (unlike what the name implies) to rebloom in the spring and provided more dried arrangement material the following fall.


German Money Plant in the back of the herb garden – growing in very dry crumby soil


The four petals indicate that the Money Plant in a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae)

For a punch of bright orange in May, Trollius europaeus, or Globeflower, cannot be beat.  The plant, hailing from Europe,  prefers a bit of shade and consistently moist soil but otherwise is a rather carefree perennial.  It blooms at the same time as some of the Giant Purple Alliums  and Chives and the purplely pinks allium blooms could make for an interesting combination with the bright orange blooms of the Trollius.


9479Lastly, we get back to some Midwestern natives for the shade.  Many sedges do well in dry shade, Penn Sedge (Carex Pensylvanica) being one of them.  This sedge is one of the “sod” formers, as opposed to forming neat tufted “clumps.”  Use this growth habit to your advantage by interplanting such shade plants as the trilliums, noted earlier, violets, whose electric blue flowers play well with the bright green foliage of the Penn Sedge.


The course foliage of Ramps (middle right) works well with the grasslike foliage of Penn Sedge

The flowers of the Penn Sedge are a bit underwhelming, but the yellow anthers can sometimes be considered a bit showy in mass plantings.


Penn Sedge spikelet – not showing yellow anthers in this photo – few seeds, seen in front of lower finger, are produced and are difficult to collect, as they drop immediately when ripe

All Violets (Viola palmata shown below) look great interplanted with other woodland plants, especially Penn Sedge.


Palm Violet

  As do specimen plants such as Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).  While the plant itself goes dormant after bloom, a showy red seed mass forms to catch the viewers attention in late summer, very cool:

9371 Or Sessile Bellwort (Uvularia sessilfolia) whose foliage looks good througout the summer.  The dainty pendulous yellow flowers are curious, if not overly showy.



 These are just some of the interesting plants that come into flower early and can be combined with each other and with later flowering plants to great effect.

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Some Summer Annuals that Finish Strong


Walking around my yard the other day, I had mixed feelings about the cool damp morning.  I have never been a big fan of scorching hot summer days – seems I can never put on enough sunblock, by the end of the day, I wind up looking like a cooked lobster.  Summer, of course, is a busy time for gardeners, and I relish being able pick fruits and vegetables from my gardens.   Asparagus in May, strawberries in June ..grapes..raspberries ..apples through to the last peppers and tomatoes in October.  Summer is a season of planting, watering, harvesting .. sweating, and seemingly, never enough time in the day to get it all done.

When finally October arrives, a slight panic sets in.   When is the first frost going to strike?   I need to pick those peppers before they freeze .. plant the garlic cloves, shallots, and get the vegetable garden beds ready for the early spring crops.  The summer annuals are still looking great, but that could change overnight with an early frost – October 6th, South Dakota just had three feet of snow fall – I’m not ready for that!  I need to take cuttings of my fancy leaved begonias – too big to take the whole plant in.

For future landscape plantings, I always try to take note of what flowers are looking good at different times of the year, and in October there are not many perennials in bloom, save for the asters and some gentians, and one of my new favorites, the Midwest native Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum formally Eupatorium coelestinum) is still going strong – amazing.


So are many of the summer annuals, including the ‘State Fair Mix’ Zinnias that were seeded into the garden in early June.  They flowered most of the summer as well, but at that time, they were competing with the perennials and were easier to overlook.


I thought that those cool blue mistflowers and the intensely hot colored zinnias would make a great fall flower arrangement, so I grabbed my florist pot, filled it with water, and gathered my harvest of bright blooms.


While I was cutting the stems (just above a flower bud whenever possible), I noticed that a volunteer Tall Verbena (Verbena boneriensis) was also in bloom, among the zinnias – Just one stem.  I made a mental note to plant some Tall Verbena amongst next year’s zinnias – they made an interesting combination.  The verbena generally shows up as volunteers (self-seeded) in my vegetable garden from plants grown there years ago – I allow them to grow and flower there, wherever they pop up.  It has never been an aggressive spreader, but about a dozen plants just show up on their own every June.  This annual seems to be semi-hardy as well as self-seeding, and its wiry stems of two to three feet, topped by one inch flower clusters, play well with other garden plants.


Arranged in a 75 cent rummage sale vase, the result was bright and cheerful, all for the price of a packet of seeds.  Now to save some seeds for next year’s planting.


At my front door, the begonias did exceptionally well this year.  A few years back, I bought a sad looking little plant at a church rummage sale, but it had an interesting leaf, and the price was right – a buck.   I replanted it into a larger pot and kept it watered, interested to see what it would do.  Over the summer, it grew .. and grew .. and grew.  In photo below, you can see how enormous it gets, the name of this begonia is still unknown to me, but I love its exuberance.  It’s growing in a 14x14x18 inch soap stone sink, salvaged out of a dumpster.  Not a bad display for an investment of one dollar.


The flowers are equally exuberant.  The neon pink clusters are over six inches across and very tropical looking – you never know what you might find at a rummage sale, sometimes it’s more than old purses and bad paintings.


All from a plant that looked like this in June, after a winter inside my home:


In September or October I take cuttings and stick them in a glass of water for a few weeks until I see roots form along the stem, then they get potted up to be kept inside until the warmth of spring arrives the following year.  And the cycle continues.


The other begonia, ‘Gryphon’ is a new one to me.  Last summer, another landscape architect in my office was using it in  tree wells on North Michigan Avenue, The Magnificent Mile, in Chicago.  That August, I found two 4″ potted ‘Gryphon’ Begonias in a garbage can at work – all of the unused summer flowers where being thrown away (sent to a commercial composter).  They were pretty sad looking specimens – just a few yellowed leaves and pot bound- but again, the price was right.


The picture below shows what the plant looked like when it was potted up outside my front door this past spring, and after having spent the winter in my dining room window.  I added the white begonia, not sure the ‘Gryphon’ would thrive – boy was I surprised!  The blue pot that it is growing in was also found in the garbage – a homeowner had left it outside over winter, full of soil, this caused it to crack in to two pieces.  The two pieces, however were easily glued together with some epoxy – so for a about two dollars worth of epoxy, I had a nice $50 pot in which to plant my  salvaged begonia.


On the other side of the door are two planters containing a large leaved Colocasia (or Elephant Ear), a chartreuse leaved, and hard to find ‘Persian Queen’ Geranium, along with some coleus.  Since they were so hard to find, I’m going to overwinter the ‘Persian Queen’ Geranium bare root in my basement.  I love the bright green leaves on this geranium, and the first time I saw it on Detroit garden designer, Deborah Silver’s blog Dirt Simple, my obsession with having it in my garden began. Mine are getting a bit too much shade from the Elephant Ears to show its best color.  Deborah does amazingly creative things with seasonal planters.


These planters looked a bit underwhelming when they were planted during first week of June:


But they soon took off, and just got better and better, looking like this, the first week of October – a good look for summer and if I felt inclined, which I do not, I could add a pot or two of ornamental kale or mums to bring it fully into autumn.


You may remember my cinder block planters from last June.  They too did quite well too, and are still looking good at the start of October:


And while expansive beds of summer annuals should be the rare exception, whether at theme parks, airports, or around one’s home, annuals do have their place in the designed landscape.  Thoughtfully used, annuals have much to offer.  As part of a cutting garden, the resulting flower arrangements, brought indoors and shared with others, can brighten a room and be the start of a conversation; colorful pots at the front door of a home can be changed out with the seasons, offering a warm greeting to visitors; and annuals of various colors, heights, and textures added to planters in a business district create a warm and inviting atmosphere.

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Downy Gentian – A Midwest Beauty in Fall



Found growing on dry hill prairies and well drained mesic prairies, Downy Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta) is a real knock-out.  Just as many plants are looking the worse for wear, or are huge five foot tall plants in bloom at this time of year, Downy Gentian is a true exception.  At only one foot tall, its royal blue flowers are a fall surprise amongst all of the yellow goldenrods and sunflowers.

My first encounter with Downy Gentian was in a smallish, unmanaged remnant prairie south of Chicago.  I was immediately smitten by the bright, one and a half inch wide, star-shaped flowers.  When the time was right, I went back to collect seed – although, from the holes that I saw, I realized that another intrepid gardener was digging the plants – not good.  That October, I sowed the tiny seeds in flats of soil and protected them from digging varmints with window screen laid on top of the seed flats.  I had been successful in propagating Bottle Gentian (G. andrewsii) and Yellowish Gentian (G. flavida) by this method.  Not so with Downy Gentian.  The following spring, when other seeds where sprouting in my native plant nursery, the flat of Downy Gentian only grew weeds.


An autumn surprise in a restored/reconstructed prairie.

I, of course, tried again the following year.  No luck.  So, ten years on, I was very surprised to see my favorite fall flower, blooming in a little prairie restoration I had worked on.  I had planted Rattlesnake Master, Rough Blazingstar, Indiangrass, Big Bluestem, Prairie Dock, and others – both by plant and by seed.  All of those grasses and wildflowers took off, and filled in the area left bare by the utility company workers.  In frustration, I must have also sown my remaining Downy Gentian seed as well, because there is was in bloom, so many years later – I could not have been more surprised if I had found gold coins laying on the ground!


I collected seed from these new plants and cast them out into my little backyard prairie, hoping that in ten years (or less) it would also be home to the elusive Downy Gentian.  This year, I will also plant a flat of seeds as well – maybe I will have better luck this time around.


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