January to April Flowering Perennials
You will get few, if any, tall plants in flower much before Midsummer’s Day, and indeed very few are listed in my TALL selections. Blame this on me for an arbitrary decision: I don’t regard a plant as tall unless an average-sized human can look it straight in the eye.
January — March
Gentiana – Gentian
According to the catalogues, gentians flower from March to August. True, they do, given the proper circumstances. But your March flower will come from the exquisite little Gentiana excisa, perhaps the most popular of all the gentians, which often endears itself doubly by thrusting its lovely blue trumpets out of the soil again in autumn.. Contrast this with Gentiana freyniana, a paler blue that probably will not show until August but will then go on until September.
And if you thought that gentians must be blue and small, there is a ‘black’ — though a very pleasing one — called Gentiana lutea, which appears in the height of summer and is not only yellow but an outsize yellow, standing a comfortable 120cm (4ft), and almost qualifying for a place at the back of the border or in the centre of an island bed.
Helleborus – Christmas and Lenten rose
Here is another early spring flower that doesn’t know when it is supposed to stop. The most famous of the family, Helleborus niger, is the fabulous Christmas rose, which sometimes really is out at Christmas and beats theas the first messengers of spring. There’s something of a misnomer here, for niger means black, yet the flowers are pure white, with yellow centres.
Although I love it, I feel the Christmas rose is somewhat overrated. Appropriately enough, if it is to be part of the Christmas celebrations, it demands a rich diet, but even then does not always deign to flower. (Incidentally, the helleborus is not a very sociable plant. The Greeks named it ‘the food that kills’; it is in fact slightly poisonous, so don’t let a young child eat any part of it.)
The Lenten rose, Helleborus orientalis, almost equally popular, appears around January and may go on until March. It is a little taller — about 45cm (1-1/2ft) high — and comes in white, crimson or purple.
Less well known but equally spectacular is Helleborus corsicus. This produces bright green cup-like flowers from January until April or later, and then continues with a display of large blue-green stems which, as winter approaches, splay out as the new shoots force their way through. Quite an extraordinary plant.
Primula – Primrose
These provide one of the big cross-sections of plant life that tend to baffle the tidy gardener who would like all his subjects neatly pigeon-holed. There are dwarf kinds, preferring some shade, and most of them partial to. There are moisture loving kinds, growing up to 90cm (3ft) that thrive in moist soil and make a waterside look colourful. Other members of the family are equally well known as primroses and polyanthus. The cultivated primroses, while retaining the shape and, in some cases, approximately the deep yellow-cream colour of the wild primroses, come in a wide range of colours — gold, various shades of red and even blue.
One of the earliest and best known, Primula denticulata, the drumstick primula, brings early colour to thewith globular masses of flowers in white, rose or lavender. A word of warning: although they are recognized as rock plants, do not subject primulas to the full glare of the springtime sun. For they are also waterside plants, liking some shade. They should flower from March to May but will do so only if you keep them well provided with water.
Caltha Marsh; Kingcup
This plant will bring a sunburst of colour to the edge of a pool for a couple of months from March onwards. Most flourish up to a height of 60cm (2ft) or more but there are some dwarfs. One, Caltha alba, is a white form growing to only 5cm (6in). A pool edge is not essential for these early plants: a dampish shady area will suit them admirably.
Another prime example of a complicated plant that can be either annual or perennial. It is a great favourite in the border — its classic partnership with lobelia has already been mentioned — and it also goes well with aubrietia. The best known, Allysum saxatile (gold dust is the aptly descriptive common name), which comes in a number of varieties, is sown from February to May in aor frame, or outdoors in June or July, to flower the following spring from April to June. Following that its flowers, mainly yellow, will continue to appear for many years.
But there are other varieties of alyssum which will flower for a longer period. Alyssum argenteum, for instance, will go on until August and will give a good showing of grey or silver foliage as well. There is even aversion, Alyssum spinosum, with pink and white flowers, lasting until August.
Doronicum – Leopard’s bane
This is a glorious yellow daisy-like flower like a cross between a chrysanthemum and a dandelion. There is not a great deal of it in height — say 30cm (1ft) — but its blast of tightly-packed golden-yellow petals will cheer you up well into late spring and early summer. If cut back after flowering, it may produce a second show in autumn.
An old favourite that has a sentimental appeal. It is corning back into popular esteem now, after a period in the doldrums. Whether this was because of its own idiosyncracies or due to the modern human desire not to do much maintenance work is hard to say. The fact is that if you want violas to go on blooming for the many months of which they are capable you have to prevent them making seed. This is done very simply by removing the flowers when they are finished and are settling down to produce the next generation. If you remove the fading blooms the viola will try to outdo you by producing more flowers, which, if left to themselves, would likewise produce more seed.
Whichever way you choose to play it, you are bound to win, for whether you allow them a long or short life the violas will always put their heart into providing you with the finest display they can manage. They will flower from April onwards, mostly until June, but there is at least one variety, V. martin, that will go on until August. Mostly, all they ask is a goodand a fairly cool position.
And don’t think they are all violet in colour. ‘Bowles Black’ is one of the nearest approaches yet to this satanic ideal that has such a fascination for plant breeders: a rich velvety purple-blue. In complete contrast there is Viola alba, pure white, and you can have yellow or pinks as well. Bear in mind how closely allied they are to the pansy, and you set the colour possibilities. The variety most famous for perfume is V. odorata, the sweet violet, which grows about 15cm (6in) high. Few exceed 25cm (10in).
This plant has dainty, feathery foliage and unusual pendant flowers. Dicentra spectabilis (bleeding heart) in particular has beautiful foliage and large, heart-shaped, rosy-pink flowers with white tips. Dicentra eximia has grey-green leaves and rosy-purple flowers, and makes a good. Neither is likely to grow much above 45cm (1-1/2ft), flowering from April or May through to June or July, and possibly August.