The flowers of the Gold Heart variety of bleeding hearts are bright pink. (Getty Images)

The flowers of the Gold Heart variety of bleeding hearts are bright pink. (Getty Images)

These colorful spring perennials are awakening from their winter slumber

From bleeding hearts and lungwort to candytuft and carnations, a rebirth of bright flowers and striking foliage has begun.

By Trevor Cameron / The Golfing Gardener

Now that spring has officially arrived and the sun has returned, our gardens are beginning to brim with activity. Bees are buzzing about, visiting early flowers; foliage is emerging everywhere; and plants are awakening from winter dormancy.

Perennials in particular are a welcome sight for this gardener’s eyes, as they finally spring back to life and fill up all the spaces in my garden that have been a little bare over the winter months. Some species will emerge a bit later or come on slowly in April or into early May, but there are some excellent early spring perennials that are already up, growing vigorously and showing some color.

We cannot talk about early spring perennials without starting with bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis). These are some of the easiest to grow and most gratifying plants to emerge early, and there are some excellent cultivars to choose from. I seem to always be a sucker for foliage and flower, so I gravitate toward cultivars with bright foliage such as Gold Heart or ‘Ruby Gold, both with golden to limey foliage and pink (Gold Heart) or red (Ruby Gold) flowers.

There is certainly nothing wrong with going with green foliage as their flowers are showy, as well. Traditional bleeding-heart cultivars can reach two or even three feet tall, and their flowers are more pinkish, but a flavor such as Valentine sports true red flowers.

Our Pacific Northwest native species (Dicentra formosa) is useful, as well, and stays a little shorter at about 18 inches. Some hybrids will have pure white flowers and some emerge with bluish-cast foliage (auch as Amore Titanium, a new one coming soon). Whichever one you go with, be sure to place them in a rich, well-draining woodland setting with morning sun, partial sun, or dappled shade.

A couple of other great perennial choices for early spring color in shady woodland gardens are lungwort (Pulmoneria spectabilis) and Siberian bugloss (Brunnera spectabilis). Both offer bold spring foliage and flower power for partial- to full-shade locations.

Lungwort can take more sun and is excellent at deterring slugs and rabbits. Selections can be found with pink, blue or white flowers. These pretty little bloomers have intricate variegated foliage, providing interest in the garden after blooming has finished. Lungwort is tidy and stays low in a clumping form, slowly spreading with time.

Some excellent cultivars you can find in spring include Raspberry Splash and Silver Scimitar, but honestly, almost every lungwort is worthy of consideration. Bugloss (or brunnera) offers the woodland garden large, bold, silver and white rounded foliage with older clumps reaching roughly 18 inches tall and 3 feet wide with age. They are in bloom now, sending up stalks with bright blue, forget-me-not-type flowers. There are a number of good options with these, all with sweet foliage, such as Sea Heart and Queen of Hearts — but again, plenty of other cultivars are excellent, as well.

For hot, sunny areas in the garden, there is even more early-season flower power to consider. Many low, border plants shine in spring, often adorning our sunny rockeries. Plants such as candytuft (Iberis spectabilis), creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) and carnations (Dianthus spectabilis) are all great choices for early-spring color and fragrance.

I don’t think candytuft needs much of an introduction as many people use these evergreen perennials already, but be sure to investigate newer, more-compact options as well as ones with a touch of lavender or pink in the fragrant blossoms.

Creeping phlox is always a good, low-growing choice for well-drained locations, and colors can be found in hot pink, red, or softer shades of blue.

The world of carnations (Dianthus) is immense these days as breeders continue to add worthy options for our gardens. These are super drought tolerant (once established), evergreen, rabbit resistant and easy to grow. They will form tidy clumps — some very tight to the ground while others may go up to 18 inches tall with longer bloom stalks. Many newer cultivars offer phenomenal fragrance, make great, long-lasting cut flowers, and provide flower power starting now and repeating throughout spring and summer, with a little deadheading here and there.

Lots of good options exist for colors, allowing you to show your own style. I might suggest looking at the American Pie Collection as an example. The series contains fun and fragrant choices such as Key Lime, Georgia Peach, Cherry, Bumbleberry and Berry a la Mode. Now that I am hungry for a sweet treat, I may just have to go get another for my own rockery.

Spring has sprung and the warm sunshine has begun to awaken all of our favorite spring perennial garden goodies. These are some of the best, if you ask me — exciting us with early color after the gray days of winter. You can help keep our local pollinators happy and thriving by adding some nectar and pollen-rich, early-spring perennials to the garden, and these flowers will make you smile and look forward to even warmer days ahead.

Free classes

Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville will host “Japanese Maples: The Tree For All Seasons” at 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 13, and “Dazzling Deciduous Shrubs” at 10 a.m. on Sunday, April 14. For more information or to sign up, go to

Trevor Cameron is a certified professional horticulturist (CPH) and serves as general manager for Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. He can be reached at

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