Northern Shade Gardening

Pretty Blue Spring Bulbs

Monday, May 19, 2008 Category: Bulbs

I love the small blue spring bulbs. Their pretty blooms and fresh foliage are appreciated while many other plants are just breaking dormancy.

Chionodoxa luciliae (glory of the snow) is in bloom this week in the garden.

Chionodoxa luciliae (glory of the snow)

This bulb blooms in early spring with star shaped flowers of purplish blue with white centres. This photo is a bit misleading, just like the ones in catalogues. The blossoms are actually a bit more lavender blue than the photo. While this is a dainty plant, the blooms face upward and can be easily viewed without getting on your hands and knees. The foliage is narrow and somewhat grass-like. They look great with the other spring flowering plants. This bulb is very easy care and reliable.

Scilla siberica “Spring Beauty’ (Siberian squill) is another petite bulb.

Scilla siberica \'Spring Beauty\' (Siberian squills)

This bulb has a true blue colour. The flowers are star shaped with darker blue lines down each petal and faint white areas to either side. The overall effect of a swath of Scilla is of a sheet of rich sky blue. This variety ‘Spring Beauty’ seems to have slightly larger flowers than my other S. siberica which has no variety name.

The leaves of the squills are narrow and strap like, and have the advantage of dying back fairly quickly to make room for perennials. This habit makes it easy to integrate them into the garden with other plants, giving longer interest and colour. The bulbs are small and easy to tuck in around the perennials in the fall. You can see how closely these resemble Puschkinia (striped squills), to which they are related .

Puschkinia, Chionodoxa, Scilla and Muscari are all members of the Hyacinthaceae family, and bloom in that order in my garden. The Muscari (grape hyacinth) should be flowering in another week or so.

I find that all 4 of these are very reliable in a northern garden, returning year after year. They are all worth planting in the fall. In the spring, when you see their pretty blue flowers, you will wish that you had planted them in even larger numbers.

Fascinating Fiddleheads

Monday, May 12, 2008 Category: Perennials

Matteuccia struthiopteris ostrich fernI find the new fern fronds to be fascinating as they emerge in the garden. They are tightly rolled at first, and within days their fiddleheads unroll to reveal the new foliage. The shapes of the newly risen fronds are intriguing, standing tall with the curled end holding what will eventually become long fronds. These are the fiddleheads of Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich ferns).

It won’t take them long to stretch 90 to 120 cm tall (3 to 4 feet). The plants I have in the deep shade under a willow against the north side of a fence tend to be a little shorter, about 60 cm tall (2 feet). My tallest ones are on the northern side of a fence, but get an hour or 2 of sun in the early morning. They are also next to a birdbath and may get a little extra water. The blades are about 30 cm wide (1 foot) at the broadest part, tapering to a narrow rounded tip and very narrow base.

Matteuccia struthiopteris, ostrich fernThe ostrich fern’s overall shape is very distinctive, narrow at the bottom and wide at the top. I appreciate this fern’s height for the back of the shade border, and the way it makes an excellent backdrop for other perennials in the garden. They look great with woodland flowers planted around their base.

They spread slowly in my garden, with a few new M. struthiopteris coming up each spring a little ways out from the parent plants. For such a lush looking fern, these are very easy care and have no problems with a cold climate nor the shade. They die back quickly in the fall with the first frosts, but their dark fertile fronds are decorative so I leave them on until spring.

Matteuccia struthiopteris (ostrich fern)Aren’t the new fiddleheads fascinating? You can see the miniature versions of the leaflets in the curl as it uncoils upwards and then out. If you click on the bottom photo you can enlarge it and see the perfect leaflets emerging and the beads of water. When I look at this, I forget that I live on the prairies.

You can find some more information and lots of photos about these and other ferns I grow in zone 3 in this post, and here is a post about Athyrium ferns in the garden.

Enchanting Striped Squills

Tuesday, May 6, 2008 Category: Bulbs

The earliest bulbs to bloom in my garden are the tiny Puschkinia scilloides ‘libanotica’ (striped squills). Puschkinia libanotica ( striped squills )The flowers grow in a shady area on the northern side of my house. These bulbs are extremely hardy, and shrugged off being covered in snow after they had grown their full height. The buds of these plants went into suspended animation for a while when mostly covered in snow, but now they are are opening again. They are white with bright blue stripes going to the tip of each petal on the flower. The blossoms are in elongated clusters with multiple blooms. Ordinarily I’m not enthusiastic about striped flowers, but these subtle blooms are enchanting. The leaves are upright, thickened, slightly arched, and a rich green. This small bulb is altogether charming and well worth growing.Puschkinia libanotica \'Alba\' white striped squill

I enjoy this bulb, so I planted the all white version last fall, P. libanotica ‘Alba’. (white striped squill). It is a dainty little bulb with an identical leaf habit and similar flower clusters. They live up to their name, since ‘Alba’ refers to a white flower, but while the flowers are pretty, they lose some of the charm that the blue stripes give to the other version. You can see a photo of the white striped squills that tried to bloom in April. That snowy photo shows you their hardy nature.

One benefit to these small bulbs is that their foliage dies back quickly, so they don’t look messy for long after they’ve flowered and they make room for the next round of flowers. Both of these are hardy bulbs for a cold climate, that tolerate some shade. They are early risers, so they extend the season, and give you something to look forward to after a long winter.

Here is some more information about some other blue flowering spring bulbs.

Which Puschkinia do you prefer?