bleeding hearts
Image by Sandy Repp

Bleeding Hearts

Spring Flowers Q&A

By Pat Curran, Horticulture Educator,

Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension

Question: What are some early-blooming perennials to go with my spring bulbs?

Early-blooming perennials combine well with spring bulbs, except perhaps the really tall daffodils (whose long-lasting foliage can distract). These enjoy sun before deciduous trees leaf out, and then are content with partial shade later.

Deer-resistant perennials include the Lenten 'rose' (really a hellebore), a semi-evergreen long-blooming perennial. Special varieties are now available for the connoisseur, but the common kind is lovely and will self-sow into a nice drift. Lungwort (Pulmonaria) has varieties with variegated leaves for season-long interest. A few varieties are all silver. Flowers last several weeks, in shades of pink, rose, blue, or lavender. Brunnera has charming flower sprays in true medium blue, but the excitement is in the new varieties with silver variegated leaves, such as 'Jack Frost' (Perennial Plant of the Year for 2012) and 'Looking Glass.' Bleeding hearts, both the tall old-fashioned species, and the shorter, longer-blooming fringed bleeding heart, are stalwarts for the partial shade spring garden, in shades of rose or white. Heuchera, coral bells, has been transformed into a marvelous foliage plant available in colors from peach to darkest purple. The flowers are pleasant, but practically an afterthought now. The native foamflower, Tiarella, has also been recently bred for leaf variegation; flower spikes are pink or white. Doronicum is a cheery early yellow daisy, more shade-tolerant than most daisies. The native Virginia bluebells has true blue flowers, but as a spring ephemeral, it goes dormant by late May. Several species of primroses are available, with different bloom times, colors, and moisture requirements.

Lovely native perennials that are NOT deer-resistant include several species of Trillium. Always be sure to buy nursery-propagated plants, not just nursery-grown. Bloodroot is beautiful, both the single-flowered and double-flowered forms. Twinflower has lovely foliage and very fleeting flowers. Solomon seal, with its arching stems, is very handsome. Besides the tall native species, there is a shorter native, a dwarf species from Asia, and a European species usually seen with a cream edge to the leaf.

Less common perennials, whose deer resistance is uncertain, include the spring vetchling, Lathyrus vernus, available in rose, violet, and rose and white. Give this one very good drainage. Glaucidium palmatum (no common name) may be hard to find, but its gorgeous lavender flowers and handsome foliage are worth the search.

Flowering groundcovers include Lamium with variegated foliage and colorful flowers. Two short species of phlox, the woodland phlox, P. divaricata, and the creeping phlox, P. stolonifera, come in several colors and mingle well with small bulbs.

In your quest for flowers, don't forget some of the smaller, showier, better-behaved ferns, such as the Japanese painted fern, maidenhair fern, and autumn fern.

Last updated January 29, 2021