Plants that shrug off a late snowfall and frigid temperatures
Helleborus orientalis, commonly known as hellebores or Lenten rose, have been a feature in my garden for almost 20 years. They are tough plants, thriving in shade or sun. Deer leave them alone. Hellebores begin to bloom in my garden around mid-March and continue well into May, an exceptionally long bloom time for a perennial. When crisp, cloudless late winter days are followed by night temperatures into the mid-teens, hellebores show their true mettle. The flowers can be lying on the ground in the morning, yet perk up by mid-day once temperatures reach back into the thirties. Plants don’t get tougher than that!
They self-seed, not in an annoying way, but creating a weed-proof patch, providing a small spot of winter garden interest or a big swath if left to their own devices. Allow the flowers to mature; the fluffy yellow stamens develop a prominent seed capsule. Consider it a reward for not bothering to deadhead! The seeds ripen and the following spring you’ll see lots of seedlings at the feet of the mother plant. Flowers aren’t true to type, meaning that they are not identical to the parent plant. Depending on what you start with, the babies, which can take a year or two to develop into mature flowering plants, range in color from cream, to pale olive or mauve, burgundy to a deep plum. Some are speckled, others are solid. All are beautiful. After the first year they are very easy to move and their adaptability make them perfect adding to other parts of the garden or giving away to friends.
A seedpod of Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) backed up by the seedheads of Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) provide moody beauty at the Aspinwall Riverfront Park. While it’s not the kind of day one might choose to venture out in, making the effort is worth it to see remnants of the summer garden and the fog encased trees along the river. The birds see it. For them this spot is a perfect spot for lunch- the native plants in this bed are a favorite for them. We need to see it too. If only for the reminder that spring is around the corner.
Purple. I don’t think it’s a color associated with being “tasteful”. Maybe it would be acceptable to the taste-police if combined with soft silver foliage, or some gentle pastels…but I love it paired with chartreuse. This portion of my garden would be considered “part-sun” to “part-shade” with some spots getting 4 hours of sun and others getting mostly dappled light in the early morning. Bottom left is Bletilla striata or Chinese ground orchid. It’s been happy in my USDA Zone 6 garden for over a decade, expanding happily in clay-loam which rarely dries out. The pops of chartreuse in this spot include the flowers of Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) as well as the arching blades of Hakonechloa macra aureola (Japanese forest grass). I’d like to also proudly point out the effective combination of the grass with an Acanthus (bear’s breeches)- species unknown-purchased 3 years ago and finally becoming a presence in the garden. The contrast between the two plants does not require any flower and will add interest to this spot from now until hard frost.
Orlaya grandiflora or Minoan lace flower came tucked inside a seed order decades ago as a “bonus”. I don’t even remember which seeds I originally ordered, but this freebie brings cottage charm to my garden and is a welcome addition from late spring through mid-summer. Orlaya is a pretty wildflower which has the feeling of Queen Anne’s lace without being too weedy. It makes a long lasting cut flower, adding fine texture to a few cut peonies, or just plunked into a simple vase where its foliage and flowers can be enjoyed up close.
- Self-sowing annual.
- Full sun preferred, will tolerate part-sun, well-drained to dry soil.
- 24 inches high and about as wide. Does not require staking.
Geranium. The word brings to mind the ubiquitous red flowers growing in clay pots with the requisite “spike” and vinca vine for a classic summer display. The common name “geranium” is given to the genus of plants that are actually Pelargonium species. A true perennial, geraniums are a very large genus of plants comprising both fussy little rock garden specimens to tough plants that shrug off clay, drought and deer. One of the best of the latter type is Geranium macrorrhizum or bigroot geranium (also known as cranesbill). A perennial which actually earns the epithet “low maintenance”, Geranium macrorrhizum makes a pretty edging plant in both sun and part-shade- whether in the perennial border or as an inspired choice surrounding shrubs in a traditional foundation planting. Topping out at around 15 inches high, it has lobed leaves which turn reddish in the fall. The species and its cultivars have pale pink to warm purple flowers, which bloom heavily in mid-spring and may re-bloom throughout the summer. Its aromatic roots dissuade deer, and plants will naturalize and form a weed-proof ground cover even in dry shade. Easily divided and simple to grow, Geranium macrorrhizum is a stalwart perennial plant which belongs in every garden.
If you’ve never visited Chanticleer- a public garden in Wayne PA (just outside of Philadelphia)- you are missing a treat. The container combinations alone are worth the visit. Rather than displaying specimen after specimen of neatly labelled plants without any context for how to make them look awesome in your home garden, Chanticleer’s horticulturalists combine plants in inspiring vignettes. Loved this pairing of dusky purple Fritillaria persica and a buttery yellow tulip. Tulip time at Chanticleer is special. They added a frilly edging of spring green leaf lettuce. Tulips aren’t truly perennial, but with good drainage the Fritillaria is- albeit for years rather than decades (experience in my Zone 6 garden). In this formal courtyard the tulips will most likely be removed and, while the Fritillaria foliage ripens, a planting of annuals will take center stage for the remainder of the growing season.
The components of this arrangement are simple and seasonal. Emerging leaves of Hosta ‘Sagae’ are slipped into a very narrow, contemporary vase. A couple branches cut from a terrific quince- Chaenomeles x superba ‘Cameo’, plus a few flowers of the small-cupped daffodil ‘Verona’ create a pretty arrangement.
Having a perennial garden allows you to cut flowers that are not available at the local florist. Pulmonaria saccharata “Sissinghurst White” (lungwort) is an early spring bloomer that has pure white flowers and deep green mottled lives. Today is a raw, cold spring day that doesn’t encourage spending time outside. Bringing a few cuttings indoors is the perfect way to enjoy the flowers and foliage. I love to see them at eye level, as they top out at a foot tall in the garden.
Details: Perennial. Part-shade. Likes it a bit damp. Can brown out with summer drought, but will rebound later in the year. Pulmonaria cultivars abound and flower color range is white/blue/pink/raspberry. Foliage can be solid green or splashed with white, making it a perfect plant for a shady spot, its leaves adding a glow to the garden after bloom time.
For over thirty years I’ve tended this patch of earth. It has taught me so much. Most of all it has provided a respite from anything else happening in my life. No complaints- it’s been a really good life. I was just busy raising 4 children, all now adults. Married to wonderful man who has people “hopping to it” in his day job- boy it’s a shock to his system when he gets home to my more laid back style. He laughs that when I start digging in the dirt I lose track of time. And yes- that is exactly what happens! At the end of the day, when I come inside with dirt clinging to parts of my body that rarely see the light of day, my 60 year old muscles feeling every lift and bend that a gardener must employ….and I have to think about what to make for dinner…ugh. That effortless passage of time reflects the power of the garden and what it can bring to one’s soul.
Photo credit: Ruthanne Bauerle (foxchapelimagesllc.blogspot.com)