Meteorological Spring Brings First Flowers
By the conventional calendar spring arrives at the end of the third week in March on the Vernal Equinox. For Front Range gardeners, however, the meteorological calendar designating March 1 as the first day of spring (based on annual temperatures and weather rather than astronomical cycles) might be more appropriate despite the fact that March is our snowiest month.
When I look at images of March from past years, what stands out is the huge number of flowers blooming between snowstorms. Hundreds of early bulbs—crocus, snow iris, snowdrops and chionodoxa—mix it up with early-flowering perennials, shrubs and trees.
Even so, predicting precisely when the first flowers will arrive is not an exact science. At my house, English primroses have debuted in January one year, March the next, depending on weather. Plus, poorly timed heat waves and arctic fronts inevitably do away with a few unlucky flowers for the entire season by killing buds before they’ve had the chance to open. This is especially true for some early trees and shrubs. Forsythias and magnolias are particularly vulnerable but, on the other hand, I’ve lost New Mexico privet and white forsythia flowers only once in over 30 years.
Among the earliest of perennial flowers are the hellebores. Of these, the white-flowered Christmas rose Helleborus niger blooms most years during every warm spell from late autumn onward, followed closely by the stinking hellebore H. foetidus, with pale green flowers. By March, the Oriental hellebores H. orientalis and hybrids chime in with flowers in white, yellow, wine-red, pink, green or nearly black—many streaked, freckled or doubled. All three are easy in Front Range gardens, requiring only slightly moisture-retentive but not wet, compost-amended soil, a site shaded from afternoon sun, and organic mulch applied over their roots. Good companions include shade-loving brunneras and lungworts.
Brunnera macrophylla, with the dreadful common name of Siberian bugloss, features sprays of true blue forget-me-not flowers held above large heart-shaped leaves. The plain green version can be a spreading, reseeding nightmare that editor Jane Shellenberger calls “an invasive monster” in her former Boulder garden. Fortunately, variegated varieties like ‘Hadspen Cream’ and ‘Dawson’s White’ and silver-washed ‘Jack Frost’, ‘Silver Sterling’, ‘Queen of Hearts’, ‘Silver Heart’, ‘Alexander’s Great’, ‘Sea Heart’, ‘Looking Glass’, ‘Jack of Diamonds’, ‘Emerald Mist’, and ‘Silver Spear’, are not intent on world domination. Also available are gold-leafed brunneras ‘Green Gold’ and ‘Diane’s Gold’ and white-flowered cultivars ‘Betty Bowring’ and ‘Mr. Morse’.
Lungwort Pulmonaria officinalis is a well-behaved clumping perennial with silver dots, dashes and overlays on bristly green leaves. Flowers come in shades of lavender- or purplish-pink, coral-red, pink or white. Buds on many start out pink, then darken to purplish-blue. Of the dozen or so pulmonaria I grow, icy blue ‘Opal’ is my favorite.
Not all early bloomers are shade lovers. Pasque flower Pulsatilla vulgaris prefers full sun. Fuzzy foliage fairly jumps out of the ground in late winter, followed by lavender, lilac-pink, violet-purple, pale blue, red or white flowers, varying by cultivar. The Papageno series is semi-double in a multitude of colors. The best way to get the color you want is to purchase plants when they are in flower. All will self-sow where happy in soil that isn’t too dry but never stays saturated.
Pansies and violas planted out the previous fall generally bloom in between March snowstorms and recover quickly after even the worst freezes to provide color when nothing else will. They do not tolerate drying out completely in winter but tend to be short-lived in the best of circumstances. Violas have smaller flowers than pansies but otherwise the two are nearly indistinguishable. Coming in just about any color you could imagine, pansies and violas bloom on and off until summer heat puts an end to their exuberance.
Woody plants for reliable color in March include Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, a large and rangy shrub grown almost exclusively for its early and extremely fragrant pink flowers. More attractive year-round is the Nanking Cherry, a large irregular shrub with reddish shaggy bark that becomes a blizzard of white, fragrant blossoms in March followed by scarlet, edible fruit.
Cornelian cherry Cornus mas is a dense shrub that can eventually reach 20' with bright yellow floral pompoms borne on bare branches. Small magnolias are an option if your soil is not overly alkaline. Star magnolia Magnolia stellata with white flowers is earlier than Saucer magnolia, M. x soulangeana with its variety of colors and sizes. Blooms on winter jasmine Jasmineum nudiflorum are the same bright yellow as forsythia but are much less prone to frost damage. On native manzanita Arctostaphylos x coloradensis ‘Panchito’ tiny pink urns dangle delicately over leathery, evergreen leaves.
Few activities give a gardener more pleasure that watching snow melt and flowers emerge. For that reason alone it is worthwhile to add as many of these early treasures as you can fit into your garden. Additionally, early flowers provide sustenance to a whole host of bees and other insects that further enliven these harbingers of spring. I’ve always wondered how they know but the same day the flowers open the bees show up.
Marcia Tatroe goes out every sunny day from late winter to early spring to search for flowers and bees (& other bugs) in her Xerces Society Pollinator Habitat garden in Centennial.