For the purposes of this article, please note that I am only utilizing perennial plants, and I am in zone 6a. All of these plants have done beautifully in the zones where I have lived, that range from 5a to 6b, and in all the soils I have had, from highly alkaline (7.9) to neutral. There is something here, taking into consideration zone hardiness, for everyone.
Popularly known as Virginia bluebells, this native Missouri wildflower, hardy from zones 3 to 8, blooms in early spring, generally in March and April in temperate zones. Accepting part shade to full shade (I actually grew it in some morning sun with moisture), this gorgeous plant is one and a half to two feet high and one, to one and a half feet wide. It grows erectly, and produces terminal clusters of flowers that are one inch long. They emerge pink, and then turn blue. The flower, as most know, is exceptionally showy and delicate at the same time. The leaves are about four inches long. Tolerant of black walnut and apparently unattractive to rabbits, it's only deficiency is that it goes completely dormant in mid-summer. I remedy this by growing it near hostas, geraniums and bergenia, only taking care that it is not overrun.
While it prefers moist, rich soils, it is easily grown in average soils. I amended my horrible 7.9 (highly alkaline) soil and actually got it to bloom in full sun, but it's much happier in my current yard, with a much lower pH, and mostly shade.
This plant is known as heart leaved bergenia. It also has the amusing name of 'pigsqueak', because of the noise that it emits when you rub your fingers over its thick leaves. This is a plant I first saw thriving in San Francisco. I was surprised to find that I can grow it easily in zone 5a, and that it is tough, interesting and very early.
The toughness should be no surprise, since this plant originated in Russia. It is hardy from zones 3 to 8 and is very easily grown in shade to semi-shade. I actually grew it in full sun on the south side of my house but it remained diminutive. When I moved it to a northern, shadier location it truly thrived.
The height and spread are one and a half feet. The flower is very showy, particularly when it is well grown. That said, it tolerates drought, deep shade. and deer and rabbits are uninterested. I find that it makes a handsome edging or ground cover plant, and looks particularly nice when grouped. It's a piece of cake to grow from seed. A hybrid call 'Winterglut' is readily available as seed. There are many cultivars, with different colors (white, pink, and others) and leaf textures, but they are not seed grown.
Epimediums (the common name is bishop's hat) are remarkable herbaceous perennials, hardy from zones 5-9, that slowly spread and are exceedingly low maintenance. The plant grows to a height of one and a half to two feet, and spreads to a foot to a foot and a half. It begins to blooms from March to April, depending on your zone, but in zone 5b, where I am located, it is just at the point in which it is emerging in mid-April. Perhaps it has to do with the type of epimedium. It blooms very well in part shade to full shade, looks lovely after bloom and, in my experience, slowly spreads and is easy to rather brutally divide, using a sharp shovel.
It grew very well in high pH soil, however I have it in near neutral soil and the performance is a bit better. I find the maintenance minimal, mostly consisting of removing the previous season's leaves in spring. It is tolerant of the juglone produced by black walnut trees, and rabbits give it a pass. A winner!
Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphurem' is a widely available and very tough epimedium. Many colors and shapes have been introduced over the years, and they have many different characteristics, but I strongly recommend this one. I have had this plant for well over 10 years, and it has bloomed faithfully and strongly every spring. Best of all, especially when compared with some of the newer cultivars, it is very inexpensive. There are $38.00 epimediums out there. Really? I just did a cursory search and found this one for $9.00.
This is a plant that has taken off in a major way. It blooms beautifully when almost nothing else is in bloom, has single, double and multiple flowers in myriad colors, can be upfacing, outfacing or downfacing, and is being hybridized at an incredible pace. The flowers last for many weeks - as many as 8 - and are incredibly varied, with some doubles, and range from pink, to green, to white. to purple and cream. Some are spotted. They thrive in a shady border - mine receive morning sun. However, they will grow well in anything from full sun to part shade. As though to apologize for the relatively high cost of these plants ($15.00 is common, but they can be obtained at half price toward the end of the season) they begin to seed after year or two, and the seedlings can be carefully dug up, potted, replanted, and the seedlings will produce flowers in a couple of years. They look wonderful in small groupings.
I heartily recommend them. Among their other traits is that they can grow in anything from acidic to alkaline soil.
Do note that although they are said to be deer and rabbit resistant, I lost my first one to a rabbit, that apparently out of curiosity nipped off the plant and it never recovered. I protect them over the winter with a little circular hardware cloth. By spring the rabbits apparently lose interest.
I must confess that this is one of my favorite plants.
Arabis caucasica is a mat forming, very early flowering plant that comes from the area around the Caucasus Mountains. This zone 4 to 7 plant, which grows up to 2 feet tall and a foot wide, tends to spread. With snowy white flowers, it looks great with bulbs especially dark blue muscari. It really is best in zones 4 to 6, for I have read that it declines in warmer zones.
Primroses are a fairly complex genus, coming in many colors and types. There are literally dozens. Some are definitely more difficult to grow in a large number of areas. So I am going to focus on possibly the easiest to grow, and frankly, it's my personal favorite. Primula japonica, which is the candelabra primrose. It is usually the earliest blooming primrose.
These open in late spring. In early spring the foliage appears, making them easy to spot. It is a deciduous perennial that comes primarily in white, pink and burgundy. In my experience, the burgundy strains seem a bit stronger. I was struggling to grow this in zone 5a in relatively alkaline soil, and then moved to zone 5b/6a in neutral soil, and met with far more success, this being because this plant prefers neutral to acid soil. It's a part shade lover, but I find it can handle morning sun, at least in the north.
Dicentra, among traditional spring-blooming plants, has undergone an amazing transition. No longer just the pink plant that disappears in late spring, it has exploded in forms and colors, with new hybrids appearing almost yearly. In addition to the clumping versions, there are now climbing versions. Most remarkable, there are dicentra that do not go completely dormant until fall. Traditional dicentra sprouts in February, blooms from March to May, and then goes dormant, disappearing by mid-summer. There is actually a vining species (Dicentra scandans) that blooms with yellow flowers until autumn. In addition, butterflies and hummingbirds will visit your plants. Happily, deer tend to turn up their noses.
Hardy in zones 3a to 8, dicentra can grow from 30 to 36 inches, with a spread of 24 to 30 inches. Cultural conditions can vary, from partial shade and somewhat moist soil to a Dicentra perrigrina which actually prefers full sun. It's important to check the cultivar that you are considering purchasing, since conditions can be so wide-ranging.
There is the old-fashioned pink dicentra that your grandmother had, which is Dicentra spectabilis. There is Dicentra eximia, fringed bleeding heart. There is a dwarf white fern leaf called 'Bleeding Hearts'. There is Dicentra canadensis. There is a gold leafed bleeding heart called 'Gold Heart' and a fringed red bleeding heart called 'Red Fountain'.
Last year a client of mine gave me a white dicentra that stayed green though out the season until early fall. I believe that it is Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba'. I found it very beautiful.
This plant is often referred to as an annual, but I found, to my surprise that many of them function as perennials. There are actually three types: annuals, biennials, and perennials. I have a variety of them, both purchased and grown from seed, that return every spring, and actually expand. The literature on this is conflicting, so I suggest that, since they are so inexpensive in garden centers, that you pick up a six pack, which is often available at about $5.00, and pop them in. Dianthus are also commonly referred to as "pinks". There are both singles and doubles.
My experience with this plant started when a friend gave me a six pack of what she described as an annual, that I recognized as dianthus. They were given to me in 2016, and they are still with me today. Then I decided to see whether I could grow them, and obtained some seed. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that seed was inexpensive, easy to grow, and came in many colors, among them red, white and many shades of pink. The plants have quite handsome blueish grey foliage that looks quite good all season. In my personal experience they are very tolerant of neglect. Despite the very hot location where I grow them, I can I can trigger rebloom by simply cutting them back when the flowers have faded.
Dianthus is part of the carnation family, and is hardy in zones 3 to 9. They do require full sun. They are unusually flexible in terms of pH, which is from 6 to 7.5. It makes a great edging or border plant, and is so heat tolerant that I grow it next to cement driveway. I find that they require no fertilization. I like to grow them in places that are visible, hot and difficult, because they are so easy and never look bad. And the bloom time is late spring to fall. Most commonly, I encounter the mounding types, but some are erect and some trailing.
There are many other plants that will take the edge away from winter. Add them to your garden for an early breath of spring.