Spring flowering perennials a bit off the beaten path [Part I]

Photo by Sara Williams. Double bloodroots like these do best in evenly moist but well-drained soil.

Sara Williams

Saskatchewan Perennial Society

It’s right about now that we become impatient for spring. So here are some spring flowering perennials to seek out at your local nurseries. They’re a bit off the beaten path, but well worth the hunt. With Easter Sunday approaching, we’ll begin with the European pasque flower.

European pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Similar to our prairie crocus but much more adaptable to garden culture, the pasque flower is native to England, western France, the Swiss Alps and into Ukraine. Like the prairie crocus, it is sought out in alpine meadows and sunny moors by folks who need assurance that winter is indeed over. It is called pasque flower because it flowers at Easter, and its sap makes a green dye once used to colour Easter eggs. The genus is from the Latin word meaning to sway, as the flowers move in the wind. Vulgaris means common (as opposed to rare).

European pasque flowers are hardy and long-lived. The finely divided, grey-green foliage is described as lacy or ferny. The leaves and stems are 25 to 40 cm (10-15 in.) in height and covered in soft hairs. The solitary flowers are in shades of white, pink, mauve, purple, and red, blooming in early spring. They are larger and of more intense colours than those of the prairie crocus. Attractive silky seed heads follow.

Place them in full sun and well-drained soil. They are moderately drought tolerant once established. They resent root disturbance and do not transplant well. European pasque flowers are ideal for a rock garden or edging a border. They may be increased by ripe seed or by very careful division. Among the varieties are ‘Alba’ and ‘Rubra’.

Photo by Sara Williams. The European pasque flower is native to England, western France, the Swiss Alps and into Ukraine.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

If ever a flower belonged among the “spring ephemerals,” a term used to describe woodland flowers that bloom before the trees leaf out, it is bloodroot. When it is in bud, grab a cup of tea, a comfortable garden chair, your camera and a book of poetry. You have about forty-eight hours in which to sit and enjoy it. The flowers close at night and the petals soon fall. But it is breathtakingly gorgeous, especially the double form, ‘Multiplex’.

Both the common and species names (Sanguinarius is the Latin word for blood) refer to the red root sap that has been used as a dye by Indigenous peoples from Manitoba to Nova Scotia.

The cup-shaped white flowers with orange-yellow stamens are 7 cm (3 in.) in diameter and held on stalks of about 10 cm (4 in.). The basal leaves are as lovely as the flowers. Heart- to kidney-shaped, lobed and 15 to 30 cm (6-12 in.) across, they emerge vertical before they unfold. By midsummer, the plants have become dormant and disappeared. ‘Multiplex’ is similar but with double flowers. It lacks stamens and is longer lasting.

Place bloodroot in a shaded, protected location. They do best in evenly moist but well-drained soil to which generous amounts of organic matter have been added. This is a wonderful plant for a shaded border or woodland garden. It spreads slowly by rhizomes and can be propagated by careful division or by seed sown outdoors in the fall as the seed requires a cold period to ensure germination.

Siberian avens (Geum borisii)

Here is a perennial that should be much more widely available: long-lived, hardy and with excellent foliage and flowers. Named by Wilhelm Schact, a German horticulturist who was head gardener of King Boris II of Bulgaria, Schact found it while plant-hunting and named it after his king. Geum is its classical Latin name.

It forms compact, neat basal clumps, 25 to 30 cm (10-12 in.) high, of dark green, trifoliate, compound leaves, each with a prominent terminal lobe with brilliant orange flowers in May and early June.

Place it in full sun to partial shade in average, well-drained soil. Once established, it is quite drought tolerant. It is well situated in a rock garden, toward the front of a perennial border, or in a “hot border.”

It ispropagated by division, cuttings or fresh seed.

Sara Williams is the author and coauthor of many books including Creating the Prairie Xeriscape, Gardening Naturally with Hugh Skinner and, with Bob Bors, the recently published Growing Fruit in Northern Gardens. She continues to give workshops on a wide range of gardening topics throughout the prairies. This column is provided courtesy of the Saskatchewan Perennial Society (SPS; saskperennial@hotmail.com ). Check our website (www.saskperennial.ca) or Facebook page (www.facebook.com/saskperennial) for a list of upcoming gardening events