Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Campaign to Manage Vermont's Invasive Plants

New invasive plant removal campaign!

Managing Vermont's Invasive Plants

This campaign went through the summer of 2013 and raised funds to begin removing buckthorn in Starksboro, VT, from Route 116 to States Prison Hollow.  Work is ongoing and the larger goal is to create a buffer zone going all the way to Monkton and Hinesburg, slowing the spread of buckthorn into Starksboro from the north and west and protecting the area's natural diversity and ecological balance.  Updates will continue with pictures and maps...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Homegrown Natives Available

    These are adult perennials propagated in Bristol, not taken from the wild.  They're native to parts of Vermont and the northeast as best as I can determine, meaning that a few like brown-eyed Susan may be introduced in areas this far north and a few like bee balm may have features enhanced by cultivation from what you might find in the wild.  Together, they support the life cycles of native pollinators and other wildlife, represent centuries of cultural heritage, and bring vibrancy, subtlety, and continuity to every part of the growing season.  They’re listed by color and from short to tall – with many more to come, including vines and shrubs.

                              ~ White ~   

Foam Flower  Tiarella cordifolia (Saxifrage)
    3-10 inches, ¼-¾ sun, mid-spring flowers.
Low, textured foliage spreads in rich or moist soil, sending up stems of
fleshy, starry white flowers and turning to ruddy tones in the fall.  Good
in shade and miniature gardens, and where you can see them up close.

Bloodroot  Sanguinaria canadensis (Poppy)
    5-12 inches, <½ sun, early spring flowers.
Smooth, flat, and deeply lobed leaves grow steadily to a foot across
after 3-inch white flowers with yellow stamens bloom early and briefly.
Spring’s first woodland flowers – good in up-close and ephemeral gardens. 

Meadow Anenome  Anenome canadensis (Buttercup)
    1-2 feet, >¼ sun, mid-spring to summer flowers.
Long-stalked, sharply divided leaves grow aggressively in full sun, sending
up white, 2-inch, five-petal flowers.  Great for spring shade gardens where
they keep to themselves, and shorter meadows where they hold their own. 

Goatsbeard  Aruncus dioicus (Rose)
    3-4 feet, ¼-½ sun, late spring to midsummer flowers.
Emerald, fern-like, compound leaves stem from the ground each year
into soft shrubs with feathery white flowers.  Grows well in dappled
sunlight under broadleaf trees.  Foliage goes well with ferns and sedges.

Bone-set  Eupatorium perfoliatum (Aster)
    3-4 feet, >½ sun, midsummer to early fall flowers.
Pairs of softly textured leaves are fused at the base around the stalk,
supporting branched, flat-top clusters of white flowers.  Spreads well
by seed, complementing glossier foliage in drained to wet meadows.

                                     ~ Blue ~

Greek Valerian Jacob’s Ladder  Polemonium reptans  (Phlox)
    10-16 inches, ½-¾ sun, spring flowers.
Rows of leaflets paired across stems arching upward like ladders, with
small clusters of pale, violet-blue, bell shaped flowers.  Goes nicely among
the pea family and in up-close, cool-colored, miniature, and moss gardens.

Virginia Spiderwort  Tradescantia virginiana  (Spiderwort)
    2-3 feet, >¼ sun, late spring to midsummer flowers.
Long, inch-wide blades grow out at angles and support new, three-petal
violet-blue blossoms with conspicuous yellow stamens every morning.
Goes nicely in beds with northern blue flag iris and blue-eyed grass. 

Great Blue Lobelia  Lobelia siphilitica  (Bellflower)
    1-3 feet, >½ sun, midsummer to fall flowers.
Spear-shaped leaves grow out alternately from a central column putting up
electric blue, orchid-like blooms.  Spreads easily by seed and mixes nicely
with wild basil, wild bergamot, and other short, less aggressive mints.

Sharpwing Monkey Flower  Mimulus alatus  (Figwort/Snapdragon)
    1-3 feet, >½ sun, late spring to early fall flowers
Lush, spear-shaped foliage supporting bright lavender-blue, orchid-like
flowers for much of the season, spreading easily by root and seed.  Good
for cool-colored gardens and mixed meadows in drained to wet soil.

Wild Comfrey  Cynoglossum virginianum var. boreale  (Borage)
    2-3 feet, >½ sun, late spring to midsummer flowers.
Large, fuzzy, oval leaves up to 4x8 inches, with small, pale, pinkish
blue bell flowers hanging above.  Spreads easily by the roots and builds
up soil over time.  Good border keeper for other large, aggressive plants.

                                  ~ Yellow ~

Common Cinquefoil  Potentilla simplex  (Rose)
    2-5 inches, >¼ sun, mid to late spring flowers.
Leaves of five strawberry-like leaflets spread by trailing to form green  
carpets of foliage with nickel-sized yellow blossoms and red tones in fall. 
Good ground cover in rich to gravelly soil, drought-tolerant once established.

Narrowleaf Sundrops  Oenothera fruticosa  (Evening Primrose)
    1-2½ feet, >½ sun, late spring to midsummer flowers.
Fuzzy, spear-shaped leaves with red edges and tones, supporting bright
yellow, 2-inch, dish-shaped flowers.  Spreads steadily in the sun, holds
its ground in short meadows and drought-tolerant once established. 

Golden Alexanders  Zizia aurea  (Carrot)
    1-3 feet, >½ sun, mid to late spring flowers.
Dark, compound leaves, sending up broad clusters of yellow flowerets.
Spreads easily by seed, nicely contrasting bigger, rounder flowers in early
meadows.  Less aggressive substitute for bishop’s weed or Queen Anne’s lace. 

Oxeye / False Sunflower  Heliopsis helianthoides  (Aster)
    2-5 feet, >½ sun, midsummer to early fall flowers.
Dark, triangular leaves on strong stalks, supporting 2-3-inch, daisy-shaped
yellow flowers.  Spreads well and grows into big clumps with drainage and
a little afternoon shade.  Makes a nice transition at the edge of the woods.

Brown-eyed Susan  Rudbeckia triloba (Aster)
    3-6 feet, >½ sun, mid to late summer flowers.
Fuzzy, pointed, three-lobed leaves with many deep yellow and black flowers,
like on black-eyed Susans but smaller.  Spreads quickly by seed, grows tall and
narrow in full sun and bushier with some shade, where outer stalks may fall over.

Cutleaf Coneflower  Rudbeckia Laciniata (Aster)
    6-8 feet, >½ sun, late summer to mid fall flowers.
Big, deeply lobed foliage sending up bright yellow tall-coned flowers that
eventually pull the plant over without a supporting fence, mailbox, a string
around each clump, or a competitive meadow.  Spreads quickly by seed.

                          ~ Orange, Pink, and Red ~

Golden Saxifrage  Chrysosplenium americanum  (Saxifrage)
    1-3 inches, ½-¾ sun, mid to late spring flowers.
Creeping stems of smooth, almost succulent scallop-shaped foliage, the
texture of a jade plant, growing inconspicuous flowers with orange-red
stamens.  Good for patios, miniature gardens, and strawberry patches.

Wild Basil  Satureja vulgaris  (Mint)
    5-15 inches, >¾ sun, early to midsummer flowers.
Small, bitter, mint leaves with button-shaped clusters of pale pink flowerets
in levels around each stem, spreading easily by seed.  Good as loose ground
cover or around taller plants.  Hard to distinguish from its European cousin.

Wild Geranium  Geranium maculatum  (Geranium)
    1-3 feet, ¼-½ sun, spring flowers
Deeply lobed, dense foliage sends up inch-wide, pale pink flowers. 
Goes well with iris, Jacob’s ladder, early violets, and other light
spring bloomers, especially in morning and dappled sunlight. 

Flowering Raspberry  Rubus odoratus  (Rose)
    3-6 feet, ¼-¾ sun, early to late summer flowers
Textured, emerald foliage on thornless, papery canes that send up 2-3-inch,
magenta blossoms turning to flavorless, scarlet berries.  Spreads to dense
stands in moist and partly shaded areas, attracting birds, bees, and butterflies.

Bee Balm Monarda didyma (Mint)
3-4½ feet, >½ sun, midsummer to early fall flowers.
Fragrant, triangular leaves with rigid, square stems and bursting clusters
of bright red, tube-shaped flowers. Attracts hummingbirds and other
pollinators, and makes a good mint for tea. Spreads aggressively in sun.

Cardinal Flower Lobelia cardinalis (Bellflower)
2-4 feet, >½ sun, late summer flowers.
Spear-shaped leaves grow out alternately from a central column with scarlet,
orchid-like flowers. Spreads easily by seed, thrives along sunny pond edges,
and attracts hummingbirds. Hybridizes with blue lobelia to pink and purple.

                                    ~ Edible ~

Wild Ginger  Asarum canadense  (Birthwort)
    1-5 inches, ¼-¾ sun, late spring flowers.
Heart-shaped leaves on fuzzy stalks with trailing roots and inconspicuous
flowers low to the ground.  The aromatic roots are used for flavoring, colds,
and fevers.  Good for stone, miniature, and part-shade gardens seen up-close.

Wild Leeks  Allium tricoccum  (Lily)
    3-6 inches, ¼-¾ sun, late spring flowers.
Simple, fragrant, spear-shaped leaves subsiding to 6-18-inch stems with
globes of white-capped flowerets that turn to shiny black seeds.  The fresh
leaves and cooked roots have long been used for food and medicine.

Wild Peanut Seeds  Amphicarpaea bracteata  (Bean)
    2-4 feet, >½ sun, mid to late summer flowers.
Small perennial bean with lavender flowers turning to tiny pods and
underground flowers without petals turning to peanut-like seeds.  Good
to plant in small mounds with tomato cages or teepees of old flower stalks.

Jerusalem Artichoke  Helianthus tuberosa  (Aster)
    5-10 feet, >¾ sun, late summer to mid fall flowers.
Strong perennial sunflower with 2-4-inch, daisy-shaped blooms.  Likes loose soil;
pull before flowering to control.  Artichoke-tasting tubers can be dug in May or
November.  The red-skinned roots are wild; the softer, white ones are cultivated. 

Indian Heirloom Pole Bean Seeds  Phaseolus vulgaris  (Bean)
    5-10 foot vines, >¾ sun, annual – plant late spring to midsummer.   
“Indian Pole” and “True Red Cranberry,” collected from farmers in Vermont
 and Maine, are believed to be among the region’s oldest cultivars.  Both tolerate
local insects and cold, growing well into fall.  Both good green or dried for soup.

Northern Dewberry  Rubus flagellaris  (Rose)
    3-15 foot vine, >½ sun, spring to early summer flowers, midsummer fruit.  
Prickly, trailing vine with raspberry-like compound leaves and one-inch white
flowers turning to sweet, blackberry-like fruit.  Establishes runners quickly, so
it helps to wind into hoops or along fences.  Drought tolerant, good for wildlife.

             ~ Vines, Shrubs, and Small Trees ~

 Meadowsweet  Spirea alba  (Rose)
    2x2-6x6 feet, >¾ sun, midsummer flowers.
Small, bluish green leaves on bushy shrub, sending up spires of white flowerets.
Mix with wildflowers or grow into a wide shrub.  Its woody stature makes a nice
transition from meadow to woods’ edge, especially under birches and evergreens.

Pagoda Dogwood  Cornus alternifolia  (Dogwood)
    10-25 feet, >¼ sun, late spring flowers, midsummer berries.
Round, pointed leaves on near-horizontal levels of limbs, growing bigger and
bushier in the sun.  Flat-topped clusters of white flowerets turn to rich blue berries.
Leaves turn strawberry red to deep maroon in the fall.  Great pet tree for the yard.

Silky Dogwood Cornus amomum (Dogwood)
6-10 feet, >¼ sun, early summer flowers, late summer berries.
Spear-shaped, 2-4-inch leaves with entire margins on thicket-forming stalks that
turn from green to deep red in winter. Clusters of white flowerets turn to blue
berries on red stems. Purple to maroon foliage in fall. Forms hedges in full sun.

Eastern Ninebark Physocarpus opulifolius (Rose)
6-10 feet, >½ sun, late spring flowers, late summer berries.
Three-lobed leaves on arching woody canes with white-capped floweret clusters
turning to brown, hard, pod-like berries. Bark goes through stages, exfoliating
with maturity. Leaves turn yellow to bronze in fall. Forms hedges in full sun.

Nannyberry Viburnum Viburnum lentago (Honeysuckle)
20-30 feet, >½ sun, late spring flowers, late summer berries.
Oblong, finely-toothed, 2-4-inch leaves in downward-nodding opposite pairs on
dense thickets to single-stemmed trunks. Flat-topped clusters of white flowerets
turn to mango-like berries ripening to pink, then dark blue. Great privacy hedge.

American Bittersweet Celastrus scandens (Staff Tree)
10-50 foot vine, >½ sun, early summer flowers, early fall berries.
Round-toothed, tear-drop, alternate leaves with yellowish white flower clusters
turning to bright orange berries that split open to shiny, scarlet seeds at ends of
stems (along stems on Asian plant). Plant males and females closely for fruit.

Virginia Creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Grape)
10-50 foot vine, >¼ sun, early summer flowers, early fall berries.
Five coursely-toothed leaflets radiating from leafstalks with tiny, greenish white
flowers turning to round, dark-blue berries on bright red stems. Leaves turn pink,
maroon, or red in fall. Overtakes trees unless curbed by shade and pine needles.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Vermont's Invasive Species

                                                                      (tartarian honeysuckle)

Following pre-Columbian and nineteenth century deforestation in the Northeast, and where open farms subside to shrubs with the loss of grazing animals, aggressive foreign species, unchecked in local ecosystems, take advantage to fill in land before native pioneer plants and forests can reclaim it.  When large tracts of farmland go unused or are developed as neighborhoods or vacation homes, invasive plants can gain dominance and decimate the natural biodiversity.  Some trees, shrubs, garden and water plants have spread to the northeast at great cost to wilderness and farming alike, displacing native plants in their prime territory, disrupting habitats and feeding and breeding cycles for certain animals, and degrading fields, streams, and natural resources.  

                                                                        (common buckthorn)                                                                                       

People with big infestations may look to solutions that seem instant and complete but can exacerbate the problem.  Because mowing, weed-wacking, and brush-hogging are indiscriminant, they can inhibit native plant growth, leaving an opening for their faster-growing competitors.  They also skip invasive plants in hard-to-reach places, increasing their dominance in the future.  Without looking for individual species, people also tend to cut weeds once and assume the problem is solved for a year or more.  To manage invasive plants too big to dig, you have to keep the foliage from returning until the roots are exhausted, which can take several cuttings and patrolling for younger generations.  With infestations of any size, some persistence from time to time can pay off, even if it’s just cutting to prevent the spread of new seeds.  Defeatism seems to be most people’s worst enemy – putting it off and letting the problem grow.


Invasive trees alter forests and farmland by out-competing plants for soil, sun, and water, changing food sources, and harboring insect populations that can damage surrounding wildlife and crops.  In places from Shelburne, VT to Evanston, IL, buckthorn was introduced for privacy hedges around trophy homes and has since spread far and wide, choking out maple stands and farmland, and filling some places with dark, dense forests of just the thick, thorny trees.  Common buckthorn can be mistaken for dogwoods and cherries and people sometimes mistake glossy buckthorn for crabapple or pear trees, so it’s important to look for the sharp, perpendicular, twig-like thorns and the layer of orange just under the bark.  Their roots will die if new foliage is prevented for a couple seasons.  Norway maples, another threat to northeastern forests, have been introduced in neighborhoods partly because they’re less sensitive to pollutants than sugar maples.  Their many samaras travel far, helicoptering in the wind and carried by rain and animals, and their dense shade inhibits new sugar maples as well as many natives that grow on the forest floor.  Norway maples look a lot like sugar maples but the leaves are darker and wider and their stems are filled with white sap.

                                                                          (Japanese knotweed)             

Aggressive Eurasian shrubs like honeysuckle, barberry, and burning bush also fill up fields and undergrowth densely, displacing native brush like dogwood, chokecherry, and elderberry.  As with buckthorn, a big part of their success comes from saturating an area in berries and although some, like honeysuckle, were introduced in places to feed wildlife, it’s now understood that their fruit doesn’t provide the kind of nutrition that native animals, especially migratory birds, have evolved to depend on.  Once the plants are mature, their fruit production is massive and new sprouts can be found beneath any tree the birds have been sitting in, ready to take its place.  Barberry is noticeable for its red, oval berries, pin-like thorns, and bright yellow color under the bark.  Burning bush also escapes into woods to crowd out natives and is still sold as a popular landscaping plant, though a new seedless cultivar is coming on the market.  All three shrubs are easy to cut and will give up the fight if their foliage is kept off for a season or two.

                                                                                  (wild parsnip)
Of the big Eurasian plants that grow out of control when left to themselves, the bamboo-like Japanese Knotweed could be one of the hardest to combat.  Its roots can spread fifty feet underground, replacing roots that hold topsoil in place and vastly increasing erosion while breaking off to spread new colonies along riverbanks and flood zones.  As with most big invasive plants, controlling it involves cutting and patrolling until the roots are exhausted.  With knotweed, normally the roots should be left undisturbed and the shoots cut as often as every three weeks at the height of the growing season.  Cutting and patrolling the periphery of a targeted area, and treating the stubble with vinegar, could clear it of most knotweed in five years.  Though it sounds labor intensive, the alternative is to let it go further into new territory.  Other common weeds like bur, yellow, and curly docks can be controlled by digging roots once or twice a year, best when the ground is wet.  Wild parsnip, sometimes called poison parsnip for the burning it can cause your skin in the sun, can be dug out in the shade or at least cut low enough once or twice a year to keep it from flowering.

                                                                           (purple loosestrife)
Some invasive plants were introduced for their flowers but have come to dominate wetlands, fields, and roadways.  Purple loosestrife uses huge amounts of seeds to take over moist to wet spaces, bishop’s weed has long-reaching roots that easily regenerate when broken, and forget-me-nots reseed aggressively, escaping yards to fill in whole fields.  Plants like day lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, and chicory have been widely naturalized and are sometimes harvested as wild edibles but still overwhelm natives in critical places.  Garlic mustard was introduced for medicinal and culinary purposes but spreads seeds that can last five years, filling in the native understory, producing compounds that inhibit other seeds’ germination, and fooling the West Virginia white butterfly into leaving eggs on a plant that will poison its larvae. 


Because specific native plants and insects have co-evolved to depend on one another, when one goes, the other is under threat.  When environmental stresses like chemicals, parasites, and climate change affect the biodiversity of pollinators, they likewise affect which plants reproduce in an ecosystem and what food is available to other animals.  Most invasive species were introduced by people, and while the chance has passed to eradicate many, people can manage outbreaks and prevent further spreading by changing a few habits.  Not throwing weeds over the fence, for example, can keep new colonies from growing where there’s nobody to keep them in check.  Cleaning and drying boats before moving from pond to pond can keep plants like the water chestnut and animals like the zebra mussel from entering new ecosystems that have no defense against them.  Likewise, not moving firewood to camp sites can keep the emerald ash borer, Asian longhorn beetle, and hemlock woolly adelgid from devastating forests and neighborhoods alike.  With these and many other species threatening northeastern ecosystems, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – any effort could keep the problem from getting worse.


Friday, April 27, 2012

All-Summer Meadows by Color

When it comes to making native summer meadows and gardens, it’s nice to have plants of different colors and bloom times mixed together and competing on open ground with some of the same species clumped in their own colonies, as they’d be in the wild.  I like grouping by color too, so certain beds keep their character while marking the season’s gradual changes.  As summer’s kaleidoscope turns, there are many blues and pinks for cool-colored settings in late May and early June, warm reds and oranges for the fireworks of late June and July, and long-blooming yellows aglow from August into October.  Loose grouping and a variety of other colors and bloom times bring out the texture of a garden’s life cycles and extend color through the season.

                                                                              (false blue indigo)
I have a garden for the blues of late spring and early summer, which gets about half the midday sun, letting plants from ankle to waist height grow without much competition between them.  Seen from downhill, the shortest plants are in front, with taller blues progressing uphill behind them, where the sun is stronger.  Bluets and blue eyed grass make cheerful spring highlights for miniature gardens and with some shade, you can use moss to hold the ground between them.  Dwarf crested iris brings a lot of early, deep blue to miniature landscapes and as the season changes, violets and self-heal take over nicely as front borders. 

                                                                            (dwarf crested iris)
The pale blue Jacob’s ladder, with its ascending rows of small leaves, and spiderwort, whose long blades grow into stacks, make good transitions to the middle heights.  Northern blue flag iris spreads into broad rings, sending up vibrant, speckled blooms.  For gardens with more room, northern bluebells and wild comfrey have broad, velvety foliage and small, hanging bell flowers.  On the taller end, blue false indigo grows as if from nowhere into tall bushes with complex pea-like blue flowers.  Monkey flower also has light, pea-like, bright blue flowers and takes over nicely behind an iris garden later in the season.  Blue vervain can hop around taller meadows, sending up slender spires of small blue blossoms.

                                                                                (wild geranium)
Pinks bloom steadily from mid-spring to mid-fall, and from short, partly shaded to tall, aggressive settings too.  Early on, wild geraniums show off the fresh, pale pink of new life.  Also in shorter, partly shaded areas, marsh fleabane has pink, daisy-like flowers and rose mandarin grows like a small, pink Solomon’s sea.  In sunnier areas, wild basil can make a pale pink-capped ground cover, sending up buttons of tiny flowerets that bloom well into summer.  On the taller side, flowering raspberry is an underappreciated, thornless, shrubby plant with broad, pointed leaves and many large, long-blooming magenta flowers subsiding to small, bright red berries.  In sunnier, more aggressive meadow settings, wild bergamot grows big tufts of pink, attracting bees and hummingbirds, and Virginia rose has wide blooms on shrubs that can be grown into substantial hedges.  Wild snapdragons and obedient plants make showy clustered stands and like to hop around the yard as well.  Into the fall, swamp and common milkweed, spotted joe pye, and various asters can make dense pink meadows in moist, sunny places.
For midsummer, I have an orange and red garden, sitting to the west for the sunset behind it.  Front and center, red and yellow wild columbine flowers hang knee-high early in the season, with big, orange Canada and Turk’s cap lilies hanging above them later on.  Some columbine grows among the butterfly weed too, both liking gravelly soil.  The brilliant orange, milkweed-shaped butterfly blooms don’t last long but are dazzling with a bright red patch of beebalm or cardinal flower behind them.  For red foliage later in the season, I have wintergreen and common cinquefoil along the ground, and sassafrass, spice bush, and staghorn sumac standing over the garden, with Virginia creeper climbing around the periphery.  These last two need some shade, conifer growth, or trimming to keep them in control.  Likewise, it’s nice to let orange jewelweed hop around a sunset colored garden, as long as there’s shade, acidity, or weeding to limit the yearly spreading.

                                                                            (foxglove beardstongue)
In full sun and drained to wet soil, you can establish a diverse meadow of summer-blooming white perennials.  Turtlehead has distinctively shaped, almost waxy white flowers, often with a hint of pink.  Bone-set spreads quickly with long-lasting flowers and textured, spear shaped leaves.  Foxglove beardstongue, a snapdragon with its own distinctive, tubular flowers, holds its own in a chest-high meadow, as does white snakeroot, whose foliage looks a lot like that of native perennial sunflowers.  In shorter areas, yarrow, a native mostly indistinguishable from the Eurasian plant, grows aggressively with full sun.  It has hardy but feathery, fragrant foliage, and fits well at the sunny edges of the woods, along with native spireas like hardhack and meadowsweet, whose woody stems and snow-cap blossoms complement flowering shrubs, white birch bark, and hemlock bows. 

Yellow native flowers are in no short supply in the northeast, especially after the crest of summer.  Early on and in some shade, hooked buttercups, marsh marigolds, and yellow violets have lush foliage and distinctive golden blooms.  Also on the short side, common cinquefoils and barren strawberry make excellent ground covers, spreading out richly toned foliage and small yellow flowers.  A little taller, golden Alexanders have early, parsley-shaped blossoms, sundrops spread out with wide, saucer-shaped flowers of bright lemon-yellow, and shrubby St. John’s wort grows intricate yellow flowers with dew-drop stamens.  The yellow daisy shapes of midsummer include black- and brown-eyed Susans and their cousin, the tall, bright yellow cutleaf coneflower.  Lance-leaved tickseed and oxeye sunflower have deeper yellows in similar shapes.  For a fresh change as fall sets in, sneezeweed and a variety of goldenrods, though they are asters, bring their own unique floral shapes to a meadow and feed the bees right through the last of the growing season.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Spring Woodland Plants

Wooded and partly shady yards make inspiring showcases for the first bright signs of spring – the white flowers of May.  An eclectic group of native perennials takes advantage of the light spring sun to show off their flowers for the year’s first insects, before the branches above them fill with leaves.  Species with their own distinct shapes and strategies seem to appear from nowhere as treasures scattered across the forest floor.  They announce spring’s arrival like the crocus, but in a synchronized chorus of uniquely shaped flowers – almost all of them white, like the season’s native cherry blossoms – inviting the first small stirrings of insect activity around them. 

                                                                  (starry false solokmon's seal)                                             

I like early spring perennials not just for their flowers, but for watching them break through the layer of last year’s leaves and unfold their foliage above it.  It’s the first new plant activity around and after a long winter, it’s nice to focus on their dramatic awakenings, with just the brightening twigs and buds above them as a backdrop.  Parts of the yard that will have half sun or less when leaves are on the trees are great for spring woodland plants.  Grouping them in colonies or mixing a few kinds together, you can arrange gardens with bloom times in mind, to make the magic of spring start early and last long.    


The first native perennial I notice in spring is bloodroot.  Its flowers come up when there’s nothing else to see, just wheels of soft white tissue facing the sky.  After the petals fall off in the wind or rain, its deeply lobed leaves grow quickly, until they’re bigger than your hands.  Bloodroot is easy to propagate by division, and spreads well in rich, drained to moist soil.  White trillium flowers a little later and for much longer.  It’s one of the more available in a magnificent group of slow-growing plants that’s protected in most states from exploitation in the wild.  It spreads widely but over time – new plants take about seven years to flower.  Patches of toothwort and hepatica, also slow-growing and important to acquire responsibly, make cheerful early spring highlights for damp, shady gardens with up-close views.

                                                                        (early meadow rue)

Plants with many small and intricate flowers make good complements to larger and simpler leaves and petals in mixed woods-edge gardens.  Early meadow rue has tiny, fringed flowers and columbine-like leaves, and balances well with the larger leafed bloodroot and trillium, in gardens you can get close to.  In broader settings, Canada mayflower and false Solomon’s seal highlight the forest floor with tiny white flowers against simple green foliage.  In muddy areas, foam flower sends up stems full of white flower clusters to stand above its patches of richly textured leaves.  As with most spring woodland plants, the foliage stays alive long after flowering, sometimes changing in size or color tone.

                                                                            (Dutchman's breeches) 

Some half-shade white spring flowers are unique and vibrant enough to call for up-close views every chance you have, and go well near steps and sitting places, or uphill of a footpath.  Squirrel corn and Dutchman’s breeches have fringed leaves and billowy, bleeding heart-like flowers, and serve as eye-catching focal points for miniature spring landscapes, as do clumps of Canada violets, whose white petals with fine purple lines deserve a closer look.  The much smaller smooth white violet fills in borders and between bigger plants nicely, fading out of sight in early summer.  Other tiny, bright blooms include bluets and spring beauty, which can spread well in sparse grass and moss, sand, and rock gardens.

                                                                          (meadow anenome)

As spring progresses, the native landscape’s white highlights give over to pinks and blues, oranges and reds, and the many yellows of summer.  I like having space for the white flowers of late spring to chime together, and make a transition to the white sun-lovers of summer.  On the subtle, shadier side, white avens and wood anemone brighten wooded gardens well into summer.  Some more aggressive anemones have interesting, sharply lobed foliage and larger buttercup-like flowers.  Meadow anemone has the largest flowers and grows aggressively in full sun.  Thimbleweed, named for its tall cones, grows more vertically but sparsely, making a nice, understated complement to showier flowers, or along paths between focal points.  In shorter settings, wild hyacinth has brilliant white star-shaped flowers, lasting just long enough to announce the change in season.  Spring doesn’t last forever, but with its many phases unfolding around you, has a much longer tale to tell.