Georgia Gardener Newsletter Design Tip: April 2, 2009

Native Spring Wildflowers

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Celandine Poppies & Virginia Bluebells

Spring is finally here and with it comes the usual explosion of some of our finest woodland wildflowers. Take a walk into any mature forest and you are certain to encounter at least some of the finest flowers to be found anywhere. Many of these plants are easy to grow and can be purchased from legitimate propagators or from various native plant societies where they have either been legally rescued, propagated from rescued plants or gathered from seed.

Trilliums are some of the most beautiful early spring ephemeral wildflowers. There are more than a dozen species native to Georgia, some of which are exceedingly rare and thus protected. The toadshade trillium is one of the earliest and fairly common trilliums in the upper portion of the state with its mottled leaves and lone maroon flower. Trilliums have three leaves, although occasionally you will find one with four. The more common species are easily transplanted and grown in woodland conditions.

Unlike tall phlox, woodland phlox blooms in early April and is only about a foot tall with its blue-lavender (sometimes white) five petaled flowers that attract the early emerging butterflies. This plant makes a great groundcover and spreads nicely in rich, moist soil.

Toadshade Trillium (Trillium cuneatum) Woodland Phlox (Phlox stolonifera)

Golden ragwort is a lesser-known wildflower with its daisy-like yellow flowers atop 12-15 inch stems in early April. The round basal leaves can form a handsome evergreen groundcover. In good soil, this plant can form a sizable clump in a season or two. I grow my golden ragwort under the canopy of large hardwoods, but I have also seen it growing in more open sunny areas.

Our native red columbine is a delicate-looking yet hardy plant which can produce numerous seedlings. The parent plants rarely live more than a season or two, but the offspring have a way of popping up in the most unusual places. In moist soil, you will have a healthy and expanding population. In dry soils, you will have fewer seedlings. Golden ragwort and the red columbine bloom at exactly the same time and make a great combination in the woodland garden.

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Bloodroot is a highly sought after, very early blooming wildflower found on wooded slopes throughout north Georgia. The white daisy-like flowers are produced on stems barely four inches above the forest floor and are quite large (1-2 inches) for plants of this size. After flowering, the scalloped leaves are easily recognizable for the rest of the season. This plant is easily transplanted but takes several years to reach blooming age.

The woodland crested iris is a bearded gem that blooms in early April with lavender and white flowers that are about six inches tall. The fans of this iris resemble many other common garden irises, yet this plant thrives in the partial or broken shade of a woodland garden. In rich soil, the crested iris spreads nicely to form a small colony and is easily transplanted.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) Crested Iris (Iris cristata)

A few years ago, green n' gold made its debut into the retail nursery trade. Few people or even nursery owners new that this plant grows wild in the woods nearby. Several cultivars have been developed. The most notable 'Eco-Lacquered Spider' was introduced by Dr. Don Jacobs of Eco-Gardens in Decatur. Unlike the straight species, Don's cultivar has runners which can spread quickly to form a thick, semi-evergreen groundcover (just ask Walter). I have found the best environment for this plant is in morning sun and afternoon shade.

Blue-eyed grass isn't a grass at all, but instead is a member of the iris family. This cheerful little plant produces blue-lavender flowers in early April. For a spring wildflower, it has a fairly long bloom season (as does green n gold) and the two make very good companions. Several cultivars of this plant have also been developed, most notably 'Lucerne' which has deeper lavender and larger flowers. The blue-eyed grass pictured below is the straight species which was rescued ahead of the bulldozers. This plant can reproduce nicely from seed.

Green n Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)

The fernleaf phacelia is a stunning plant and one of my personal favorites. The mottled and lobed leaves are very noticeable on these plants which can reach 18-24 inches tall. Lavender flowers are produced in early April. In rich and moist soil, phacelia reproduces nicely from seed. These plants are biennials so make sure to let them go completely to seed and to protect the first year seedlings.

Star chickweed is NOT the winter annual weed that plagues most lawns in the early spring. Star chickweed is a woodland perennial that forms a tidy, slowly expanding clump that is topped by white flowers in early to mid April. This plant looks wonderful when coupled with trilliums and crested irises. I wish I could get more of this plant or at least get more seedlings.

Fernleaf Phacelia (Phacelia bipinnatifida) Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera)

Trout lilies are one of the earliest wildflowers to emerge and bloom. Often, the foliage peaks out from below the fallen leaves when we are still encountering hard frosts or even snow. Flowers usually appear in late February to mid March with each mature plant only producing two mottled gray/green leaves and one yellow flower. I'm surprised at the fast rate of reproduction of this plant. From maybe 150 rescued plants, I now have thousands and they're continuing to spread. This plant goes dormant early and has almost completely disappeared by early May.

Don't let the small stature and delicate appearance of rue anemone fool you into thinking this plant is hard to grow. On the contrary, I've rescued many where the leaves and stems were completely broken by the time I got home. Leaving only a root system to plant, I've been pleased to see how quickly they rebound. Once again, this is a plant I wish I had hundreds more.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

Purchasing and Sources for Native Wildflowers

Unfortunately, some of our less common native wildflowers can take several years to grow into mature flowering plants from seed. Plants such as trout lilies, trilliums, Virginia bluebells, ladyslippers are some of those that can take upwards of seven years to mature. This has led to some unscrupulous growers to wild-collect these plants and them sell them via catalog or even to big box stores. If you encounter hard-to-find unusual wildflowers being sold at very low prices (sometimes under $5.00 each) be very wary as to where they originated.

Other wildflowers grow quickly and readily from seed and are becoming more widely available. From those listed above, celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), woodland phlox, columbine, ragwort, blue-eyed grass, green n gold and crested iris can be quickly propagated and are therefore sold more commonly in retail nurseries.

Probably the best place to begin is with your state's native plant society. The Georgia Native Plant Society lists sources of native plants on their web site as well as holding regular plant sales at their meetings. Their large annual plant sale will be held Saturday, April 25 from 10AM until 2PM at Stone Mountain Park.

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