Whilst March is the month when things start tentatively unfurling and lifting their heads above the parapet, only to flinch as another stormy day approaches, April really is the time when spring flowers start bursting into life. And of course it’s the month when bulbs really come into their own.
Then there is the blossom on the crab apples, the pears and the dramatic appearance of magnolia flowers while in the woods the iconic bluebells carpet the ground before the deciduous leaf canopy grows over and they lose much of the light. It is interesting how so many spring blooming plants are shade lovers or partial shade lovers and of course for the same reason.
Wood anemones carpet the ground in shady areas early in the month. A. nemorosa (AGM) is one of the earliest of spring flowers and its star-shaped white flowers are so refreshing after a long winter. Once they have finished flowering, their foliage disappears until next year. They take a very long time to spread and you may want to grow A. blanda instead which self sows rapidly. There are blue and white forms of Anemone blanda. A choice wood anemone is A. nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’ (AGM), named after William Robinson, which is a pale blue and which looks wonderful with cowslips.
My mother, now in her ninety-third year, remembers clouds of cowslips growing wild in her youth and just ready for the picking. These are our native primulas, P. veris, and their lemony yellow flowers last right through until May. They are just lovely and wow, they spread rapidly so that we too can have a sea of them although perhaps not on the verges and in the meadows as they used to be.
One of my favourite groups of plants in April are the pulmonarias or lungworts. Every garden should have them. They just seem to get on with it and now come in the most fantastic forms. They too are best in dappled shade and most thrive where other plants find conditions difficult. They are native to Europe and the UK hence their ability to do well here. They look great with early flowering plants such as the hellebores and the brunneras. I notice that the pure white flowers of P. ‘Sissinghurst’ are beginning to flower now. They come in blues, pinks and red as well as a combination of colours which change as they mature. I’m very taken with P. officinalis ‘Blue Mist’ with its large pale blue flowers and spotted leaves and P. ‘Blue Ensign’ which has rich blue flowers which combine beautifully with the mauve flowers of its neighbour, a cardamine that has been dormant all summer, reappearing in March, the clump spreading out a bit more each year. Some of the pulmonarias have wonderful long silver leaves like P. longifolia ‘Majeste’. Another treasure is P. ‘Opal’, again with silvery leaves and opalescent flowers of the palest blue.
Another group of April lovelies are the epimediums, also known as Bishop’s Hat and, more appropriately, Fairy Wings. I think actually that I would have them at the top of my list of ‘would like lots’. We have the European forms which are pretty hardy here and then the absolutely gorgeous Japanese and Chinese forms. They are really fun to collect as their foliage and their flowers are simply exquisite with the flowers seemingly floating above the leaves on impossibly fine stems. The other thing is that many of them are fantastic ground coverers. At Great Dixter a venerable old crab apple, M. floribunda, growing near the oast, appears to rise from a carpet of E. pinnatum subsp. colchicum (AGM).
I love Christopher Lloyd’s description of Euphorbia palustris’s lime green ‘flowers’ as literally sparkling perhaps with ‘a tiny crystal of nectar in the centre of each flower’. It is a particularly nice euphorbia with a good spread and an average height of a couple of feet as well as lime green inflorescences. Perfect for giving a dramatic backdrop to bright tulips. Another spurge that takes itself here and there and then flowers in April is E. amygdaloides var. robbiae. It’s not a rich and rare plant and it pops up usually where you haven’t planted it but it produces loose limey ‘flowers’ from rosettes of dark evergreen leaves which are just great with bright spring bulbs. Have a look at the Cottage Garden at Sissinghurst in April to see the first of the euphorbia flowering. Each spring I admire Euphorbia polychroma there and mean to grow it. Greenish yellow flower heads last for weeks, are SO cheerful and are perfect for the front of a border. I haven’t grown it myself but it might be an idea as I usually go for huge plants like E. mellifera and E. stygiana which grow into completely unruly giants.
And finally, the hellebores, most of which started flowering long before April, are treats in the spring garden. One that is completely different from the hellebore hybrids we grow and collect is the Corsican hellebore, Helleborus argutifolius. I saw a clump in full flower yesterday and it is a very dramatic, beautiful thing. The combination of big bold trifoliate leaves, distinctively veined and many bunches of apple green flowers is very striking. I couldn’t help noticing that seedlings were coming up merrily in the gravel surrounding it. A midnight raid perhaps?
- words: Sue Whigham
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