Roots and Shoots: Spring Is Nearly Here

A wild red columbine flower (wildflower.org)

When will we see blooms?

By Pamela Doan

Reader question: “I can’t stand winter any longer. It’s like living in a snow prison. The first day of spring is in two weeks. What are some early blooming plants I can look forward to?”

Thanks for this question; it broke up the monochromatic haze to research and write. Perusing plant databases is a healthy antidote for a winter that seems never-ending. While the first day of spring is just two weeks away, it doesn’t guarantee immediate relief. Bloom times are still dependent on certain conditions that trigger a plant to come out of its long nap.

Sunlight, temperature, the length of the day and soil nutrients all contribute, but there’s a complex process that’s part of a plant’s genetic structure that tells it when to emerge and bloom. Climate change has had a notable effect on bloom times already. In New York, for example, apple trees are blooming eight days earlier than they were in the 1960s. This shift can throw off the synchronicity that has evolved for apples to thrive, including vulnerability to frost damage and emergence of pollinators.

All the plants I list here can bloom in March, but it all depends on the weather to determine if they will. Mother Nature follows her own schedule.

I suppose I have to mention daffodil and crocus because they’re popular, deer resistant and seen in yard after yard, so there, I mentioned them. Now let’s move on to more interesting choices.

I focused on native plants in a shameless effort to promote them. They are better for the environment, it’s good to recolonize and protect them as part of a natural ecosystem and, generally speaking, they require less work to grow here because they’re supposed to be here. I’ve also noted plants that have benefits to birds, bees and wildlife.

Native perennials that can bloom in March

Wild red columbine (photo by Jeanne Tao)

Wild red columbine
(photo by Jeanne Tao)

Wild red columbine, Aquilegia canadensis: If you want hummingbirds, this is a great way to attract them. Tubular flowers are red and yellow and very showy. A real treat.

Eastern bluestar, Amsonia tabernaemontana: A taller plant, it grows up to 3 feet, has multiple light blue flower heads on a tall stalk with fringed leaves.

Jack in the pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum: It gets its name because of the way the three leaves seem to cradle the tip of the flower as if it were sermonizing. While the leaves are toxic to animals, it has berries in the summer that birds love.

Bleeding heart, Dicentra eximia: This is a great shade plant and will do well in a spring that doesn’t get too hot too fast. It appreciates cooler weather and will bloom longer. True to its name, it has heart-shaped flowers that seem to drip.

Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus: This isn’t a plant that is commonly found in home landscaping because it smells like rotting flesh if it is disturbed, but it grows in marshy areas in the woods. Cool fact — it grows so quickly that it heats up the ground around it and melts the snow.

Shrubs

Bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi: A flowering evergreen — What more could you ask for?

Mayflower, Epigaea repens: While known for its wonderful scent, mayflowers are pretty scarce in our woods. They are very sensitive to disturbances and hard to protect. Try cultivating it in an area of the yard where it can be left alone.

Silky dogwood Cornus amomum: With white flowers in spring, nice color in fall and berries for the birds, this shrub is a winner on all counts.

Vine

Trumpet honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens: Japanese honeysuckles are invasive and regulated now. This native is a wonderful alternative. It tolerates less-than-ideal conditions, has a lovely scent, gorgeous flowers and provides food for birds from its blooms and its berries. Plant it now.

Trees

Eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis: Since it is low-growing, reaching heights of 15 to 30 feet, this is a safe alternative to have close to a home or structure. It has beautiful clusters of pink flowers in early spring that attract native bees.

I hope this brought a little color into your winter doldrums. Plant names are evocative and colorful, all in their own right. The folks who give plants common names must also be the same people who name racehorses. They can be sort of ridiculous and allude to an inside joke that you aren’t privy to.

Helpful plant databases that are easily searchable: Wildflower.org, maintained by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and the eponymous Missouri Botanical Garden site.

Questions? Write askrootsandshoots@philipstown.info


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