With the start of spring, as bulbs pop up and plants break their dormancy, I always feel a rush of excitement to fill in gardens with as much lushness as possible. Here's a selection of early-blooming perennials that will keep hungry pollinators happy and the garden in bloom as the bulbs begin to wain.
Creeping phlox, phlox subulata
This low-growing perennial—which is available in white, powder blue, lavender, and pink—creates a vibrant and fragrant carpet of color early in spring. Try it as a "spiller" plant for a container or at the edge of a flower bed—just be sure it gets full sun.
Bleeding hearts, dicentra spectabilis
One look at a blooming bleeding hearts plant and you'll understand how it earned its evocative common name. It's long, arching stems are laden with pink, heart-shaped blooms that dangle like earrings above delicate foliage. This one is a shade lover, so be sure to shelter it if you've got afternoon sun. Note that the foliage tends to die by late in summer if the weather gets especially hot, but it will return anew the following spring.
Cheddar pink, dianthus gratianopolitanus "Fire Witch"
Dianthus "Fire Witch" offers a shock of hot pink color above a dense mat of blue-toned evergreen foliage. This perennial looks great in containers or en masse in a perennial bed. Plant in full sun for best blooming and deadhead as-needed to help extend the bloom time.
Barrenwort, epimedium grandifolium "Lilafee"
Don't be fooled by the delicate, orchid-like flowers of this shade-tolerant perennial. Epimedium is an exceptionally tough, long-living plant that can handle drought, deep shade, and competition with tree roots. It produces yellow, white, pink or purple flowers in the spring (depending on the variety) with "Lilafee" offering a gorgeous amethyst hue. I like pairing it with other dry shade lovers like heuchera and dryopteris (autumn fern. Wondering how it landed that common name? Click here for a bit of plant lore.
Lenten rose, helleborus sp.
The earliest perennial bloomer in the garden (they often start peaking out in February), hellebores are notably shade-tolerant but also thrive in sunnier conditions too. The beauties are long lived, low maintenance, and offer year-round dark green evergreen foliage and stunning blooms in a variety of colors, including off-white, juicy salmon, moody burgundy, and nearly black. They're perfect for adding a bit of color to a woodland garden.
Pulmunaria is a lovely and under-utilized perennial. This part-to-full-shade lover produces tidy, low-growing clumps of lush foliage dotted with silvery spots. In early spring, upright stems are topped with clusters of flowers in pink, purple, and blue jewel tones, as well as the occasional white. Plant pulmunaria with ferns or woodland grasses for a nice bit of contrast and make sure it has moist but well-draining soil.