I enjoy watching early wildflowers emerge and seeing beautiful displays of bulbs in other people’s gardens, but I seldom bother with planting anything for spring interest in my own garden. Still, in the process of collecting cool foliage and experimenting with unusual species, I’ve ended up with several intriguing early bloomers over the years. So, here are few for a special spring edition of Three Neat Plants.
Yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris), also known as winter cress, is a common field weed here in Pennsylvania, and it occurs in almost every other state as well. The variegated version of this biennial, however, known as ‘Variegata’ or ‘Winter Cream’, is anything but common. It’s easy to start from seed, and during its first growing season, it forms a tidy rosette of bright green leaves that are heavily splashed with creamy yellow. The ground-hugging rosettes remain attractive through the winter, looking much like an ajuga.
Early the following spring (usually April), the rosettes send up flowering stems to about 1 foot tall, carrying clusters of small, soft yellow flowers until mid- to late May.
The plants set a generous amount of seed and self-sow readily, so I usually let just one or two stalks set seed, then shake the ripened pods where I want new plants to grow. Cutting the spent flower stalks off of the other rosettes as soon as the flowers are done encourages them to produce new leafy growth, so they act more like a perennial than a biennial.
Besides being pretty, variegated winter cress is edible. So once you get a patch established, you can pick some of the leaves for cool-season salads. Variegated winter cress thrives in average to moist soil in full sun but can take light shade too. Seeds are available from J.L. Hudson, Seedsman (in the U.S.) and Plant World Seeds (in the U.K.).
Next up, Corydalis nobilis (for want of a better common name: noble fumitory). I’ve pretty much gone off corydalis altogether after over a decade of trying to eradicate another unusual species – C. ochotensis – from my last garden, and now this one. (Boy, do I regret trying so hard to get it in the first place.) C. nobilis, though, has been in my life for over 20 years now – it’s one of the very first plants I included in my first real garden – and it’s been nothing but well-behaved. I wish it would seed around a little bit more, in fact.
The deeply cut, blue-green foliage emerges as soon as the soil starts to warm in March, eventually forming a mound about 1 foot across. In April, dense clusters of bright yellow flowers, each tipped with a deep red dot, open just above the foliage, for a total height of about 1 foot.
It’s a nice show for maybe two weeks, then it’s over just as quickly, as the plants go dormant again by mid-May. That makes it a great companion for grasses and hostas, because it’s pretty much gone by the time its partners start to fill out. It likes a spot that’s sunny in spring. I’m not sure how well it adapts to different soil conditions, but it seems quite happy here, where the soil is on the heavy side and usually somewhat moist, though often dry in summer. Seeds of Corydalis nobilis are available from Gardens North.
There aren’t many umbel-form flowers for spring, so Chaerophyllum hirsutum ‘Roseum’ (sometimes called pink cow parsley) makes a nice partner for other mid-to late spring bloomers – especially those with large, bold blooms, such as tulips, irises, and peonies. Like the corydalis, it’s an early riser, forming loose mounds of hairy light green, deeply cut leaves in March.
In April, the somewhat sprawling flowering stems are topped with domed clusters of many tiny blooms, to about 18 inches tall. They’re rosy pink when new, especially when temperatures are cool; sun quickly bleaches them to a very pale pink to near-white.
For me, pink cow parsley puts on its best show from late April through May, but I understand it can flower for another month or so in cooler areas. It sets lots of seed and apparently can naturalize readily. I usually remove the spent flower stems but allowed them seed last year. This spring, there are a whole lot of unidentified seedlings nearby; they don’t quite look like I’d expect, so I’m not sure they’re from this plant, but if they turn out to be the same thing, I’ll be hesitant to let it set seed again.
The foliage sticks around through the rest of the season but is kind of limp and tired-looking when the weather starts to get hot. Cutting the whole thing to the ground in June encourages fresh new growth, though it’s not at all eye-catching. It’s basically a space-filler for the rest of the growing season, so I don’t recommend giving it a prime spot at the front of a sunny border, as I have. Because it can grow well in partial shade too, I’m thinking it would be nice for early color under deciduous trees, mingling with the bold, leathery foliage of Lenten roses. The only seed sources I could find are both in the U.K.: Special Plants and Chiltern Seeds. The closest plant source, as far as I know, is Fraser’s Thimble Farms in Canada.