Spring Awakening

Nothing says spring like the season’s first flowers – and nobody talks flowers like Kelly Norris, director of horticulture at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. Norris speaks and writes on gardening with infectious enthusiasm, nowhere more so than in his new book, “Plants With Style.” With permission from the author and his publisher, Timber Press, dsm is delighted to share some excerpted passages about the flowers of spring.

Spring is full of cheap, satisfying thrills. It’s easy to make pretty in spring, drunk on the poetry of silver rains, flowers everywhere, and poetry itself—in this season, the world is indeed what Cummings called it, mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful. And perhaps because of all this, spring is also full of emblems that endure in American gardens. But spring is tyrannous—its effusion hogs the first third of the growing season on garden center shelves, resulting in a bias toward May and June and an indifference to the rest of the calendar. But there’s no need for bitterness. Embracing all the seasons and their diversity just means growing more plants, which is what the world needs more of anyway.

One of the anticipated spring ephemerals in my garden is spring pea (Lathyrus vernus). The genus Lathyrus is quite diverse and best known for its vines—the sweet peas of our grandmothers’ back fences. … Early spring flowering, delicate, and tough as nails—what more could you want?

Drops, Driblets, Spots, and Specks
These nouns not only capture the pace at which spring so often begins but the personalities of the plants it keeps. Ephemerals are the alpha emblems of the season, even if their personalities as plants wouldn’t suggest it. They are programmed to sprout, flower, and set seed within a very small window—get up, put out, and get back to bed. For the moments they last, they are joyous, the first flowers to color the landscape.

Snowdrops (Galanthus) are among the earliest hints of spring, verdant notes from a dormant score. Snowdrops are also definite characters, even if their detractors deride them for being merely green and white (and occasionally yellow). Distinguished horticulturist Gertrude Wister made the point in writing years ago: “The flowers of late winter and early spring occupy places in our hearts well out of proportion to their size.” Though diminutive and limited in color, snowdrops are a fleeting sensation for which enthusiasm flows in the absence of other flowers. Even the common snowdrop (G. nivalis), which you can cheaply buy dozens of, deserves to be planted abundantly.

In March, in the woodlands I tramped through on warm afternoons in college, hepaticas flowered by the thousands. Carpeting the forest floor with bands of blue and sashes of white, these tiny, five-petaled flowers enchanted my senses, much as galanthus do now. After a long winter, I’ll tip my hat to any spot of color brave enough to push through a crust of last autumn’s fallen leaves. Hepaticas enchant even before they flower, their three-lobed, silver-splattered leaves, purpled by weeks of freezing temperatures, glowing against the ground. With little else to be fascinated by, this will do. …

I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a lusty affair with Corydalis. As free advice goes, more gardeners should. Every garden has weeds, so why not plant a few of them yourself? Even novice gardeners can grow amiable profusions of C. solida, the appleblossom-shaded species that reseeds freely in soils with even nominal fertility. Over the years I’ve encouraged its free spirit, assisting its romp through the gardenhood by throwing its dehiscent seed pods into various corners where I could do with a spot of color. Plants break into colorful swathes in early spring, shortly after the rush of Galanthus; I couldn’t imagine the pace of spring without them.

An Iris for Every Garden
What’s an iris lover supposed to say when asked about his favorite emblem of spring? I’ll try not to gush. Of course I believe every garden should have irises. Why not? Beyond the bearded irises, of which there are thousands you must grow, there’s really an iris for almost every circumstance and opportunity. Irises truly offer a parade of diversity that begins in early spring and continues strong through summer.

With a name like corn leaf iris, Iris bucharica, one of the true bulbous irises, deserves a spot in every corn-belt garden in company with something blue to make those aureolin yellow flowers zing. Amid the spring awakening, corn leaf irises are as essential as salt and pepper. Easy, drought tolerant, and a quick colonizer.

“Dazzling” is an astoundingly beautiful intermediate bearded iris bred by my friend Paul Black of Salem, Oregon. It’s a reliable performer everywhere from California to Iowa to Maine, charming the eye with sea blue falls below snow white standards. For the modern garden short on space, this clump queen is essential.

If I said Siberian irises, you might reply with “Caesar’s Brother” or “Butter and Sugar,” two good answers, but neither A-plus in grade. In fact, there is more to Siberian irises than the blues and yellows of old would suggest. “Ginger Twist” sounds like my kind of cocktail, a fact I’m reminded of each time I see a dazzling clump of this Siberian iris. What a show it puts on, flowers fizzing in ginger, amber, and golden tones. “Pomegranate Punch” certainly headlines the party menu. If you’ve only laid eyes on the usual suspects, you might think Siberians were boring until you drank in these luscious, fruity flowers. With plenty of buds and good vigor, this new-age Siberian leads the pack in the early summer garden and is a solid performer in many climates. Who wouldn’t want the newest in Siberians with a nod to mixology?

Iris laevigata “Lakeside Ghost” is a fantastic representative of perhaps the most classic of water irises. Long popular in the United Kingdom, the Japanese I. laevigata is strangely absent from American gardens. Plants thrive in shallow water, so they are perfect for the margins of ponds or even bog gardens. Like the classic I. ensata and other Japanese irises, they do best in slightly acidic soils (pH 5.5 to 6.0), which results in crisp green blades that give rise to saucer-sized flowers in shades of blue, purple, and white. “Lakeside Ghost” is a newer selection from Chad Harris at Mt. Pleasant Iris Farm in Washington, an eerily pale selection with finely splattered blue markings.

In a final nod to emblematic irises of my own late spring garden: let’s hear it for spuria irises. Too few gardeners appreciate them, and they remain barely recognizable to even the most astute plant collectors. Passed along for decades, Iris orientalis (syn. I. ochroleuca) is about as far into the section as most gardeners get, and it’s no shrinking violet of a plant, mind you. Bordering on brutish, it’s big, pearly in blossom, and takes whatever you dish it. A well-established clump can flower for weeks in midsummer, the perfect digestif after the blowsiness of spring irises. But there’s a whole world of exceptional colors in this section worth relishing. Those few hybridizers who have taken up the spuria cause have left formative impressions: bronzes, golds, rusts, oranges, and bicolors have joined the usual array of blue, purple, orchid, and white, making for striking flowers, elegantly constructed and prime for cutting. “Prairie Lights,” a recent selection of mine, is a hardworking and early flowering clone of I. spuria ssp. halophila that overlaps in flower with tall bearded irises; its pale yellow and white flowers hover over the clump, a treat for flower-conscious gardeners.

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