The White On The Way

White_Trillium_Trillium_grandiflorum_Flower_2613pxHas the thought of spring crossed my mind yet?  Oh yes.  The fierce cold, the heavy snow and the ice of the past 3 weeks has made it easy to daydream about spring. Better than 30 years ago I was able one October to buy five acres of rolling land (burdened with an utterly dysfunctional house) blessed with a substantial stand of trillium grandiflorum – the native Michigan trillium.  I was not expecting them, but in late April, there they were.  I was enchanted.  The three lobed flowers are almost as large as the leaves-showy. The trillium blooming provoked an interest in Michigan wildflowers.

Double_SanguinariaOver a period of years, I added lots of other wild flowers to that spot. I would guess it was 2500 square feet or so, dominated by a few old ash and locust trees.  The ground had not be disturbed for many years, or had any of the leaves been removed.  But for the tree roots, one could dig in this compost based soil with 2 fingers. The double bloodroot pictures above from Wikimedia never made large colonies, but what I had was persistent.  The main trick was to check the plants as often as possible once they come in to bud.  Any warm weather or wind, and the petals would drop.  Looking every bit like a cross between a miniature peony and a waterlily, they might be in bloom but a few hours a year.

anemone nemerosa vestal

I did spend a few years working for Francis Hughes in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  His nursery was unusual, in that he sold native wildflowers dug from his own extensive gardens.  One plant which I especially admired was anemone nemerosa. I can still remember him digging me a small start from which he shook off all of the soil.  He made a point of telling customers that he did not sell his soil.  I was sure my unceremoniously bare rooted plant would not survive, but this plant and many others did indeed grow. The cultivar “Vestal”, pictured above courtesy of, is a hybrid noted for its prominent anemone center.

anemone blanda is is not native to Michigan, but its white flowers come early in the spring.  The small corms are planted in the fall.  I soak the dark brown nuggets for 24 hours before planting them 2-3 inches below ground.  The 6 inch tall plants will readily colonize large areas – even weedy or grassy areas –  if they are happy.  The purple and pink varieties are lovely, but I love the white the best. A few hundred bulbs planted in the untended remains of an orchard multiplied many times over.  This picture is from John Sheepers bulbs.

Alabaster_closeupWhite epimedium, a perennial groundcover, spreads more slowly and blooms later than other species, but it is well worth the trouble.  They are tolerant of dry shade, which makes them an ideal addition to a wild flower garden with mature trees.  They bloom on foot tall slender stalks, the new foliage coming after the flowers.  This picture- from

DSCN2299 cropThe yellow species trout lily is a familiar face in the Michigan spring wildflower garden, but the white epimedium conalba “Alabaster” is strikingly beautiful.  They are fairly easy to grow, but can take years to flower.  They are well worth the wait.  Like many other wildflowers, the plants go entirely dormant once the trees get their leaves, and the rain is less reliable.  Wild flowers are frequently referred to as garden ephemerals, as their dormant season comes early in the summer.  The photograph above is from

Dodecatheon_meadia_1Dodecatheon media is commonly referred to as shooting star.  This is a good description for these diminutive flowers with extremely reflexed petals.  The foliage is lettuce-lush and juicy looking. They are easy to grow, and will colonize readily when happy.  This picture is from

white-helleborus-orientalis.jpgHellebores are not naive, or are they wild flowers.  They are perennials with mostly evergreen foliage.  But no discussion of white flowers in early spring would be complete without them.  Helleborus orientalis is commonly known as the Lenten rose, as it blooms at that time of year.  They are one of my favorite perennials, as they are as beautiful in leaf as they are in flower.  There are numerous cultivars, each one more lovely than the last.

white hepaticaFor whatever reason, hepatica was always my favorite spring wildflower.  The area where I lived 30 years ago was decidedly rural, but on the cusp of development.  Whole neighborhoods full of homes were built nearby, after the land was scraped clean of any and every plant.  I dug many a clump of hepatica out of the way of a bulldozer, and relocated them to my property.  With a little oak leaf mold, and slightly swampy conditions, they were very happy.  I like to believe they are still  thriving from benign neglect in those spots, as I know that garden has not been touched by the owner who came after me.  This photograph via

dutchman's breechesDutchman’s Breeches are a wilding bleeding heart.  The plants feature serrated blue green leaves in profusion.  The bleeding hearts are arranged all along a small arching stem.  They were very shy bloomers for me.  Charming, these.

solomons sealSolomon’s Seal has a similar arrangement of individual blooms.  The foliage is also arranged along the stem.  The plant is quite tall, and vigorous.  Some gardeners prefer the variety sporting white variegated leaves, but I have always liked the more subtle species.  I found this great picture at

Jeffersonia diphyllaJeffersonia Diphylla is commonly known as twin leaf.  Though this picture does not do justice to the leaf structure, what appears to be 2 leaves at the end of a leaf stalk is actually one leaf, deeply divided.  This wildflower was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson by his friend and fellow botanist William Bartram. Only one other species of Jeffersonia is known, and it is native to Japan.  Why that would be, I have no idea. This photograph is from

Viola_canadensis_(Orvokki)_Kanadaviol_C_DSC03075Last but not least, Viola Canadensis, the Canada violet.  They are quite rare in some places they are known to be native, but they grew vigorously for me.  All of the violets were willing and able to cover the ground.  Once the wildflowers went dormant, there were plenty of violets covering the ground.  Sweet, that.  Very sweet to think that a lot will be happening in the garden in the not so distant future.

Sunday Opinion: The Season

Our remarkably cold spring has helped make more than a few things clearer to me.  Every year I encourage gardeners to plant for spring.  In the fall, and again come spring.  It can be one of the lovliest times of year in Michigan.  There are the spring bulbs-literally thousand to choose from.  Some are small and subtle-others are big and showy.  They are easy to plant- little brown orbs that only need to be popped underground.  They are completely programmed for a spring display- the day they go in the ground.  There is no better representative of promise and hope than this;  an early spring blooming bulb you can hold in your hand, and dream of the future.  Part of the party-plant as much as you can, as fast as you can.  That fall dirt will indeed be chilly.  

 The spring flowering bulbs are not the only party going on in the spring.  There are the wildflowers-an equally large group.  The spring flowering bulbs are exotic looking-meaning they are native to countries other than ours.  They look other-worldly.  The wildflowers are native.  Their wild and subtle beauty speaks to the celebration of the natural landscape-wherever you may live.  A nod to the native landscape-this is a pleasure for any gardener.  Phlox divaricata is one of my favorite wildflowers-that blue is unforgettable.  Michigan has more species of native orchids than any other state, save Florida.  Many of them bloom in the spring.  Should you be a gardener who also watched the Royal wedding, I am sure you spotted the long fronds of blooming Solomon’s Seal in the flower arrangements at Westminster.  Were they not beautiful?  There is a spring season.  I would encourage you to celebrate the spring wherever you may garden.

Perennials that represent beautifully during the spring-there are plenty.  I could list my favorites, but that is not my point.  If you do not have some part of your garden which is devoted to a celebration of spring, you will spend a few months longing for another time, and a different circumstance.  My garden has Magnolias, hellebores, European ginger, crocus, daffodils, crocus, tulips, trout lilies, PJM rhododendrons and sweet peas-I have a whole lot going on in my garden in the spring.  By mid March I can sense change in the air.  But dinner on the deck featuring homegrown tomatoes and basil is a long way off.         

There are those cold tolerant spring container plants-why would anyone do without them?  The pansies, violas, primula denticulata, ranunculus, lobelia, annual phlox, alyssum, and ornamental cabbage-all so beautiful.  My favorite combination this year-Creme Brulee heuchera, dark violet pansies, lavender and peach violas, and cream yellow alyssum.  I have some ideas about what fuels the urge to skip spring gardening.  We have four seasons in Michigan.  Spring, summer, fall, and  winter-each last about 3 months.  Our spring has been terrible really-very cold and very rainy.  But this is what we have now-for better or for worse.  Given the prospect of a really cold spring, there is that idea to skip it, as it might be short and fleeting.  I still plant for it.  The beauty of spring plants is such that the risk is well worth taking.  Some years my Magnolia Stellata blooms but 2 days-I have already had over a week of it this year.    

I have clients who wish to plant their summer annuals May 1.  They wish to follow up with planting vegetables May 10.  As much as I understand the idea to try to lengthen the summer beyond 3 months, nature is remarkably uncooperative in that regard.  Annuals and vegetables planted too early, in really cold soil, with cold night temperatures-they struggle to survive.  Should they survive, they are set back.  They may never recover the entire season.  Tropical plants set out too early in cold soil-it will take a lot of time for them to recover from the insult.  The insult?  Pushing the season.  No matter what any of us long for-the seasons turn when they will.  The turning of the seasons apply to all of us equally.  You gardeners for whom a garden is a sacred way of life-nature  could care less about your passion and committment-you will be on nature’s schedule no matter what you do. Plan ahead for a spring garden.  That garden reigns the better part of three months. Stave off the need to plant for summer too early-plan for a gorgeous spring.

 If you have a mind to skip the spring season, and challenge the opening date of summer-be prepared to plant twice.  Of course I have planted summer flowers too early.  Clients have events that are important.  June is such a tough month to plan for.  An unusually warm spring can mean the spring flowers are looking tired in June.  A cold spring can delay the summer plantings-which in the best of circumstances will not look at all grown up in June.  Summer annuals just get looking good in July.  Some years, the summer annuals never get really good.  Investing in gardening is a risky business-there are no guarantees.  No promises can be made.  Plants can die.  A planting scheme can turn out not at all how I imagined.  When I get too concerned about the prospect of failure, or too worried about the risk, I try to remind myself that act of making the garden is as important as the outcome.  Does any summer flower look anything like a forget me not?  Is there a reasonable substitute for dogtooth violets or violas in June that you know of? Pots of pansies and voilas just get looking good in June.  I have had them go on into July.  A beautiful spring is out there, in one form or another.  I would chance it, given that I cannot substitute one seasonal experience for another.      

The truth of the natural order of things will be told.  Ity is not tough to spot plants that are suffering from cold-they have that look about them.  Those gardeners that do not plan for a spring season can be tempted to plant summer annuals way too early.  They forego the beauty of the pansies, violas, and annual phlox for geraniums or begonias that are not prepared to survive outside a greenhouse at this time of year.  They plant out tomatoes the first of May; they buy their tomato plants a second time, once the summer weather sets in.  The end of May usually brings the beginning of our summer season.  It can be a week early, but it is just as likely to be a week later.  I plant my own summer flowers in June.  Given warm soil, they take off and grow fast-faster than plants that have been planted in cold soil.   Rushing the spring, hanging on to the summer too long,  editing the fall, ignoring the winter-this never works.  A life seriously imagined, and experienced in the present-a life well lived.  The changing of the seasons informs, and guides.   

No doubt it has seemed like our winter went on forever, pushing spring out of the picture.  Last spring-the best I ever remember. By best, I mean cool and surprisingly mild.  This year, miserably cold and wet.  Yet both seasons are well within the parameters of what we can call spring.