Gardening: Jewels emerge in first signs of spring growth

Hepatica transsilvanica 'Blue Jewel' are currently flowering.
Hepatica transsilvanica 'Blue Jewel' are currently flowering.
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As I sit down to write, feeling all creative, one of the riotous events of springtime is taking place outside my window.

Yes the frogs are back and they have congregated in the pond, turning it into some kind of wildlife Jacuzzi. Their enthusiasm is rubbing off on me, and how can I resist the chance to potter outside in the sunshine, clearing away the remnants of last year.

Last month heralded an awakening from dormancy and now we are seeing the first signs of growth; hidden treasures in the garden. Over the coming weeks and months there will be a transformation as flowerbeds reassert themselves with fullness and colour. Deciduous trees burst out with every shade of green and more, some dusted with blossom, with promises of fruits to come. Several trees and woody shrubs are bearing their eye-catching catkins at the moment. These catkins are their pollen-laden flowers, and are most commonly seen on willow (Salix) as soft furry balls and on hazel (Corylus) as dangling clusters.

I adore the light you get looking up through trees as they are just starting to leaf up and the dappled shade that is created down below. Aside from the spring-flowering bulbs that are spreading the love, there are many other less assuming plants that enjoy being down low on the ground, daring to flower so early in the season. Hepaticas are such plants, small and delicate, with lobed leaves and gorgeous flowers that are starting to kick into action. They are found growing wild in Europe, North America and in Asia, where in Japan they are known as ‘The Breaking Snow Plant’, which tells us how tough they can be. As a rule they enjoy a cool location, growing amongst leaf litter, flowering in the soft warmth of spring sunshine followed by summer shade provided by new tree foliage. Hepatica nobilis, H. transsilvanica and H. x media are from Europe and grow successfully here, whereas the Asian and American varieties will do better under cover, but some will survive if given the right conditions. H. transsilvanica ‘Blue Jewel’ is currently flowering away at Harlow Carr behind the Old Bath House and on the Hazel Walk.

Another unassuming but low spreading plant growing in our shadier areas in the garden is the Periwinkle ( Vinca minor, Vinca major and Vinca difformis ) . V. minor is the smallest as the name suggests and is the widest grown with starry flowers ranging through blues, purples and white, above fresh evergreen foliage and with variegated specimens that work really well in shadier spots. V. major is larger and more vigorous, and V. difformis sits in between the two with the palest milky blue flowers and a tendency to prefer a more sheltered position. They are all ideal as groundcover and will grow in those difficult areas through from full sun to full shade, thriving in all but the driest spots.

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