Spring Ephemerals in the Shade, Part 2

Written by Mary Free, Certified Master Gardener

The continuation from Ephemerals in the Shade Garden – Part 1, featuring bulbs, corms and trilliums, click here.

Although Bon Air Park’s Shade Garden (pictured) is home to spring flowers in a variety of colors, blues and yellows dominate the palette. The grande dame of the spring ephemerals is native Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebell). “She” flourishes en masse under the serviceberry tree. [Once planted, Virginia bluebells do not like to be moved, so choose a moist, well-drained site carefully.]

Bon Air Park Shade Garden in early spring with Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebells) in left foreground and Stylophorum diphyllum (celadine poppy) in right background © Mary Free

In early spring, violet-pink buds mature to pastel blue, bell-shaped blossoms (pictured), attracting pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hummingbird moths. The nodding flower clusters are framed by 12”-24” tall, yellow-green/gray-green foliage. Soon after the flowers fade, so do the Virginia bluebell leaves. The bluebells will not reappear until the next spring. Meanwhile, in the Shade Garden, the ground they vacate above fills with red-veined and crimson-backed, heart-shaped leaves of Begonia grandis (hardy begonia).

Mertensia virginica (Virginia bluebell) © Mary Free

Unlike Virginia bluebells, which are undisputed or “true” spring ephemerals, some spring-blooming perennials wear that label dubiously. These plants may display ephemeral characteristics depending on their growing environment—climate, too much sun, not enough water, etc. In ideal growing conditions, however, they may not be ephemeral at all. Understanding a plant’s life cycle makes it easier to recognize whether or not growth behavior is normal for our area, i.e., whether fading leaves signal impending dormancy or something that requires remedy.

One example is Phlox divaricata (woodland phlox). Descriptions vary, listing it as a spring ephemeral or as semi-evergreen, and may include recommendations to cut its foliage by half after flowering to promote new growth. The apparent contradictions can be explained by the conditions under which it grows. When it is too hot, too dry, or too sunny, the plant loses its foliage and goes partly dormant; then it reappears in fall as a low-growing, semi-evergreen groundcover (pictured, below left).

Phlox divaricata (woodland phlox) flowers © Mary Free

Phlox divaricata groundcover © Mary Free

Located in the front of the Shade Garden along the curved stonewall under the redbud tree, the woodland phlox peaks just as the Virginia bluebell blossoms wane in mid-spring.  Although the woodland phlox appears in smaller groups elsewhere in the Garden, the flowers are most impressive when planted en masse (pictured, above right). Loose clusters of blue to white, tubular flowers appear atop 12”-18” tall stems. They are an important early nectar source for hummingbirds and butterflies like swallowtails, sulfurs and painted ladies. One creature they supposedly do not attract is deer.

Uvularia grandiflora (large-flowered bellwort) © Mary Free

Not so deer resistant is native Uvularia grandiflora (large-flowered bellwort, pictured), which blooms early to mid-spring. Quite the contrary, its light green, 1’-2’ tall foliage is particularly attractive to white-tailed deer. It is also particularly attractive planted en masse, so appreciate its elongated and nodding, lemon yellow flowers before they disappear. When its foliage dies back depends on where it is grown. Thus, although it is often referred to as a spring ephemeral, it may just be that in some places, it exhibits ephemeral characteristics.

Stylophorum diphyllum (celandine poppy) © Mary Free

The US Forest Service describes native Stylophorum diphyllum (celandine poppy, pictured) as a “highly prized” “spring ephemeral,” and indeed, if the soil is not kept consistently moist, its deeply lobed foliage goes dormant in summer. Under the right conditions, though, this attractive, 10”-18” plant can self-sow and spread quickly and even is considered invasive in some northeastern states. Whether occasionally ephemeral or occasionally invasive, its showy, bright yellow flowers bring sunshine to the shade April to June. [In the Shade Garden, it has bloomed sporadically well into July.]  An added bonus—the “hairy,” light green fruits, which follow the flowers, are highly ornamental.

Dicentra spectibles (common bleeding heart) in a shady spot in Bon Air Park’s Sunny Garden © Mary Free

Lastly, Dicentra spectibles (common bleeding heart, pictured), an 18”-36” tall, spring-flowering perennial from Asia, exhibits ephemeral characteristics when exposed to too much sun, heat or dry soil. Usually its fern-like leaves wilt and the plant goes dormant over the summer. Nevertheless, it deserves a place as a specimen plant for its beautiful flowers—rose pink “hearts” punctuated by a white “tear drop” that appear on arching stems mid to late spring.

In fact, all of the plants described here deserve to be considered when planning a home shade garden. The MGNV demonstration gardens in Arlington and Alexandria offer visitors an opportunity to observe how these and other plants grow in our region. Many of the gardens have signage, garden maps and/or brochures with plant information. Additionally, Master Gardener volunteers are available during open “houses” in April and May (click here for information) to offer advice and answer questions. Before you invest, learn about the growing conditions in your own garden—soil moisture, soil texture, soil pH* and available light—so that you can select plants with similar requirements.

During the spring and fall, our area is host to numerous native plant sales. You can often find these advertised in local papers or listed on web sites like: www.epa.gov/reg3esd1/garden/sales.htm. In May, the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia sell some native plants at their booth at the Green Spring Gardens Plant Sale (click here for details) as well as at the Glencarlyn Library Plant and Herb Sale (click here for details). Many of the plants have been divided or propagated from the plants in the MGNV demonstration gardens. Maybe one of the plants pictured here will find a home in your garden.

* Many shady sites, especially in Northern Virginia, are acidic (unless located near cement which may lessen acidity over time). Many shade-loving plants prefer a neutral soil. A soil test will determine your soil’s pH (acidic, neutral or basic). For information about testing your soil, visit the Virginia Cooperative Extension site at: http://www.ext.vt.edu and type in “soil test.”

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