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In early spring, from March onwards, there's a pop of colour under the hedgerows, in gardens and on sunny banks. Spring flowers emerge, despite wind, rain, sleet and ice. It’s what they do. The harbingers of better weather will appear, come what may. They are suited to just about all conditions, with the exception of complete flooding, and will raise their merry little faces – providing some much-needed cheer.
Let's start with the Primula family. They are one of the nation's best-loved spring flowers and certainly deserve to be. But do you know the difference between primrose, cowslip, oxslip, primula and polyanthus?
The genus Primula includes many herbaceous flowering beauties, including the dainty common primrose, which is a wildflower. Its botanical name is Primula vulgaris and it remains one of the nation’s most popular flowers. It forms a low, rosette-shaped mound and produces creamy yellow simple flowers with darker centres, each on its own short stem. The flowers appear in late winter or early spring and provide a useful nectar source for early pollinating bees.
Then there is another, much-loved, later spring native, the cowslip (pictured above), which is Primula veris. These are synonymous with Easter because they generally flower in April and May. They love woods and meadows where their taller stem will pop up above the grass sward. Cowslips have bell-shaped, yellow flowers with a hint of orange. They tend to rise above the surrounding growth to a height of up to 25cm, where the flowers nod in the breeze in clusters. The foliage is similar to that of primrose, but the leaves form a lower rosette.
Next, we have Primula elatior, the rare oxlip. You’ll be very lucky to see one, although it can be found in the south east of the UK. It looks similar to the cowslip but is slightly shorter – up to 20cms – and the flowers are paler. They have the habit of all facing the same direction, which makes it easier to identify.
Just to confuse matters further, there are false oxlips too. They commonly arise from a cross between Primula veris x vulgaris and they can pop up in gardens, on verges, banks and woodland edges. Taller than a primrose, the flowers are produced on stalks and they have a natural beauty which makes them valuable in their own right.
Primula acaulis has a similar shape and habit as the wild primrose, but this popular spring bloomer has been bred specifically for its array of bright colours. They come in the traditional yellow as well as vibrant orange, reds, blues, purples, rust and white, to name but a few. It stands to reason that this is the plant of choice for those looking for bright and beautiful flowers to fill spring containers and to brighten the garden after a long winter.
Finally, the Polyanthus family. These hybrids are similar to Primula acaulis, in that they now come in a huge range of colours. But their form is closer to the cowslip or oxslip as they bear their bright colours on stalks, with several flowers on one tall stem.
The bright spring flowers are often treated as an annual, but strictly speaking, these are fully capable of being perennials and coming back year after year. What they won’t tolerate, however, is dry, baked earth, so if you intend to keep them going you will need to ensure that their summer position is shady and moist.
What other flowers can we enjoy in early spring: March and April?
The spring flower show is only just getting going, and we have so much to look forward to. The reason there are so many low-growing, colourful bulbs and perennials at this time of year is because the tree and shrub canopy hasn’t yet filled in. Light can still reach the ground level unimpeded and the increased daylight hours gives a signal to spring plants to put on their show.
Don’t miss the following delights in March and April:
- Of course there are daffodils and narcissi galore.
- Snowdrops are still resplendent in their white mantles.
- Crocuses are emerging in grass, on banks and along the woodland edge.
- Wonderful Cyclamen coum, the winter flowering natural species can cope with dry shade under trees. They turn the ground pink and purple with their shuttlecock-type flowers.
- Early Iris reticulata is a beautiful little flower which hugs the ground for protection. Its delightful flowers appear in hues of blue and purple.
- Winter Aconites, Eranthis hyemalis (pictured above), produce bright yellow flowers under trees and on the woodland edge. They love the shade and will seed and spread if they are happy.
- Hellebores are the stars of the show, but you might miss them because the flowers are normally arched to face the ground for protection. They are the perfect perennial under shrubs where they will be protected from summer sun.
- Pulmonaria, or lungwort deserve a place in just about every garden. The spotted leaves, by themselves, are attractive enough, but the early spring brings masses of bright blue, pink, purple and white flowers, depending on the form. They associate well with Hellebores, snowdrops and Cyclamen and catch the eye from a distance because of their vibrant tones.
- Hyacinths and grape Hyacinths are not only blooming but producing scent of the most luxurious kind.
- Bergenia, or elephants’ ears – a great groundcover that produces vibrant pink flowers on stalks.
- Then, of course, there are tulips, which can be in flower from February right through to the beginning of June, depending on the variety.
There are dozens of spring delights to enjoy during spring, but it's all too easy to miss them. Be sure to look carefully for many of the low-growing species can be overlooked in favour of the later, more blousey show of summer flowers. Sometimes, subtle is more stunning.