Plants I can't live without, part 1

Here are three plants that a Midwest gardener never wants to be without.

Photo courtesy of Betty Earl
Unparalleled for the shady woodland garden, Allium zebdanense (Lebanon onion) has lovely, clean white blooms. It's especially beautiful planted out among hostas and pulmonarias.
Photo courtesy of Betty Earl
The solitary lilac-pink blossom of the Japanese wood poppy, with its attractive yellow stamens, is the perfect foil for the softly textured leaves.

Although it has barely started, I already feel that this is a winter that's overstayed its welcome!

Here in the Midwest, as in other parts of the country, we’ve had more than our fair share of ice storms, strong winds, bitter cold, and periods of seemingly unending snow.

And as a gardener, typically an outdoor person currently stranded in an indoor world, I feel a certain indignation at my captivity.

Still, as I reflect upon the successes and failures of the past season, I find that there are a handful of jewels in my garden – some familiar plants as well as plants not so well known – that speak to my soul.

Undoubtedly, I will find new favorites, but at this moment at least, these are the plants which I just can’t live without.

What unites them is that they have all, in one way or another captivated my soul with their alluring beauty, their evocative fragrance, their silken frailty or their brawny robustness. Some are widely available; others, harder to find. But, should you succumb to their seductive charms, as I have, I hope you will also find them as irresistible as I do.

– Glaucidium palmatum (Japanese wood poppy)

One of the stars of the early spring garden, this perennial treasure from the cool forests in the mountains of Japan is one of the truly great plants of the woodland garden. A slow-growing, mound-forming plant, Glausidium palmatum displays its large, silky lilac-pink flowers, measuring up to three inches across, above large, veined, and crinkled maplelike leaves.

The delicate, solitary blossoms, opening in late May or early June, last approximately three weeks and are the perfect foil to the handsome spring green, softly textured leaves. Flowers emerge almost as soon as the foliage comes up in early spring. A mature clump, growing to a height of 2 feet, is a breathtaking sight to behold.

Proper siting is crucial, for this is not always an easy plant to get established. Hardy to Zone 4, it prefers cool shade and moist, well-drained soil. However, once it has found the proper niche in a sheltered spot in your garden, it forms quite the robust plant, the foliage of which adds a wondrous texture to the woodland garden throughout the season.

A rare variety, Glaucidium palmatum ‘Alba’ (var. leucanthemum) with its pristine, snowy-white blossoms, is especially striking, but harder to find.

Allium zebdanense (Lebanon onion)

My favorite among the many ornamental onion species grown by gardeners worldwide is Allium zebdanense. Not because it’s the tallest, or has the biggest globe, or is unusual in any outstanding way, but because it is an ideal plant for a dry, woodland shade setting with humus-rich soil.

Endemic to rocky mountainous spots of Lebanon and Syria, it is especially gorgeous when planted among hostas or under shrubs that are late to leaf out. Though partial to light shade – especially in the hot afternoons – the Lebanon onion will also perform splendidly in your sunny borders as well.

This gorgeous allium, growing to a height of 12 to 16 inches, blooms in late April to mid-May in charming, loose clusters of six to 10 small, glistening, immaculate milk-white flowers suspended on gracefully arching stems. The wiry stems and shiny chive-fine leaves slowly increase and grow into dense and compact, carex-like grassy clumps which are quite attractive in drifts throughout the woodland garden.

An ephemeral, the plant goes completely dormant within two or so weeks after the last bloom fades. Hardy in Zones 5 to 8.

Dicentra spectabilis (Bleeding heart)

Over the years, much has been written about this rather common, though extremely popular spring-blooming plant -- and it remains this gardener’s heart-throb to this very day.

A classic charmer, this old-fashioned plant growing to a height of 17 to 35 inches forms a bushy, upright mound of fleshy stems and powdery-green, somewhat ferny foliage in early spring.

It’s easy to see where bleeding heart got its name. Dangling in a row on long, graceful, arching stems, the elegant, shade loving woodlander displays seductive chains of puffy rose-pink, heart-shaped flowers with protruding white tips in mid-to-late spring. D. s. ‘Alba’ is a white flowered form of the common bleeding heart, while D. s. ‘Gold Heart’ displays stunning golden-leaved foliage. All are irreplaceable perennials for the shady border.

Easily grown in average, well-drained soil in part to full shade, old-fashioned bleeding hearts usually go dormant sometime in late spring to early summer, so it is best to tuck them in among ferns and other plants to hide the empty spots. Hardy to Zones 2 to 9.

Next time, we’ll examine a few more special plants.

Betty Earl, author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest,” writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy.

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