Wildflowers are some of the first flowers to emerge in the spring, sometimes overshadowed by the showier bulbs that dominate gardens in March and April. The wildflowers are demure cousins, shy and retiring, often hiding in the shade of overarching trees and shrubs.
Spring is the best time to purchase young starter wildflower plants. Although wildflowers are notoriously challenging to grow, they can be slow to establish and may not survive through the winter, but once established they can spread into a respectable and beautiful patch, rewarding your efforts for years to come.
The hardest part about growing wildflowers is taking that first bold step. As you would with any plant the first step is to prepare the ground floor. Choose a spot where you often pass in the spring so you can monitor their growth and enjoy their diminutive blooms. Most New England wildflowers prefer a woodland soil with a thick layer, called “leaf mold”. That is the layer of decomposing leaves of the deciduous canopy overhead. The best, and most common are oak leaves. You can easily make starter oak leaf mold by raking up a pile of leaves and mowing it with the collection bag attached. This can be done in the fall when fresh leaves are plentiful. You can leave the pile until spring and it will be the perfect material to work with. The next step is to clear your planting area and break up the top layer of soil, a few inches. You can work in some compost but you don’t need to make your mix too rich, remember that most wildflowers grow in poor woodland soils. Then plant out your young wildflowers covering with only a few inches of soil. On top of this you can spread a nice thick layer of your leaf mold. You may need to do some supplemental watering for the first couple of years to help get them established.
We have some wonderful selections of wildflowers at the nursery. It is difficult for growers to keep wildflowers alive in containers because they either tend to get over watered or dried out. Their special needs are hard to meet when contained in a pot. Now is the best time to plant them so come by the nursery and help spread native beauty.
Here are a few of the types we have available:
Trillium is one of the most familiar of our New England wildflowers and one of the easier ones to grow. They will spread by reseeding so it can take several years to develop a substantial stand of them but well worth the wait!
Bloodroot is another of the easier wildflowers to grow. They are in the Poppy family and produce the latex that characterizes the tribe. You can guess what color the latex in Bloodroot is and it is copiously produced when any part of the plant is broken or damaged, so care should be be taken in handling them while planting. A nice thing about this appealing plant is that, while the flowering is ephemeral in the spring, the foliage remains strong and ornamental through the rest of the summer.
With the unfortunate common name of ‘Liverwort’, coined apparently due to the similarity in the shape of its leaves to a liver, Hepatica is a charming, diminutive wild flower, closely related to Anemones, with nearly true blue flowers. It is known to grow well under Beech trees where most plants cannot. Its natural inclination is towards calcareous soils, though a challenge for our naturally acidic soils on the Island. The plant would therefore benefit from regular addition of lime to promote healthy growth.
Mertensia or Virginia Bluebells, is another wonderful blue flowered wild flower. It’s not native to the Island but we’ve had very good luck growing it here in just about any soil or exposure, though it does prefer some protection and light shade. Perhaps the only challenge in growing Mertensia is that it almost completely disappears after flowering so it can be easy to forgotten and unearthed when planting something else. But while it is flowering there’s nothing like it. It’s quite floriferous over a long period in late spring and it’s intensely blue flowers draw the eye from a far distance.
We have a number of other wonderful shady woodland wildflowers, some we carry just as standard perennials like Cyclamen and Arisaema triphyllum (Jack in the Pulpit). You can find them in House 9 at the Nursery with the other perennials and ground covers.
For further information about the plants and their cultivation check out the New England Wildflower Society.