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Spring ephemerals, here and in Chelsea

It’s April 22 and I’m bent low over the shade bed tracking the native wildflowers that make the forests of the North East such a joy at this time of year. The delicate white and mauve flowers of the Sharp-lobed Hepatica were the first to appear, on April 15, pretty faces framed by a delicate circle of stamens lifted to the suddenly warm sun.

Today, it’s cold and wet and the Hepaticas have turned away towards the ground. But the Bloodroot’s white buds are on the verge of opening, leaves still curled around the stem. Later, after the dazzling white flowers are spent, the deeply cleft leaves will spread like little umbrellas above the ground.

A Trillium, rescued from the garden of a lady who died, is in full leaf, the buds tightly closed and giving no hint of the gorgeous deep red that makes me think affectionately of the gardener I never met, who unknowingly bequeathed some of her treasures to me. Another one is a Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper of which there is as yet no sign.

Blue-purple spikes of foliage are emerging from clumps of Virginia Bluebells, one of the most beautiful of these spring ephemerals, so called because all trace of them disappears as the trees leaf out and shade closes in. The slightly striped foliage of the Wild Leek is up, as are the delightfully fish-like blotchy leaves of the Trout Lily. I search in vain for the Large-flowered Bellwort that I am confident will soon emerge, it’s been doing so for several years, and for the Wood Poppy that I transplanted last year – I’m not so sure it has made it through the winter.

On March 22, I was in England, enjoying these wildflowers in full bloom, more than a month ahead of their native timetable. When I am in London, I visit the Chelsea Physic Garden, founded in 1673 as a place to display the medicinal qualities of plants. It has collections from all over the world, but I am always drawn to the North American sections because I enjoy seeing our plants displayed with the honour they deserve.

My first thought when I arrived was to visit two ancient plants that had interested me when I last visited in 2012. One was a seriously gnarled Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) growing near the entrance, its moss-covered limbs twisted this way and that, giving the impression of great antiquity. Alas, the old Witch Hazel is gone and the North American plantings have been moved. A young and shapely Witch Hazel is growing in the new location.

Another plant that took my fancy in 2012 was a huge Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignoniodes). It’s from the southern U.S., but very similar to the Northern Catalpa that grows around here, producing stunning orchid-like blooms in June. When I last saw this particular tree, it was in trouble, smothered by a vigorous climbing rose from the Himalayas (Rosa brunonii) that had been allowed to grow rampant all over it. This time, with no foliage on either contender, it is hard to tell which is winning. But Catalpa and rose each seem to have been severely cut back – perhaps allowing light to reach in and offering hope for the future. Strange that two plants from such wildly different and geographically distant parts of the world end up in a struggle for survival here, in a quiet square close to the bustle of the King's Road.

I made some lists of what is growing in the North American sections (so you, right here in Huronia can grow what is exotic and treasured in Chelsea).

Here’s the medicinal list: American Mandrake Podophyllum peltatum, Bee balm Monarda fistulosa*, Scullcap Scutellaria, Flowering Dogwood Cornus Florida f rubra, Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea*, Pale Purple Coneflower Echinacea pallida, Common Witch Hazel Hamamelis virginiana*, Black Cohosh Actaea racemosa*, Blue Flag Iris Iris versicolor*, Black Haw Viburnum prunifolium, Pokeweed Phytolacca americana. The section seemed smaller than in 2012, when I also noted Oswego Tea Monarda didyma*, American Pennyroyal Hedeoma pulegioides, Indian Tobacco Lobelia inflata, Great Blue Lobelia Lobelia siphilitica*.

Here’s the list from the forest section: Wild Bleeding Heart Dicentra canadensis, American Spikenard Aralia racemosa, Bloodroot Sanguinara canadensis*, Twinleaf Toothwort Cardamine diphylla, Jack-in-the-Pulpit Arisaema triphyllum*, Shadblow Serviceberry Amelanchier canadensis, New Jersey Tea Ceanothus americanus, Devil’s Club Oplopanax horridus, Blue Cohosh Caulophyllum thalictroides*, Foamflower Tiarella cordifolia*, Wild Geranium Geranium maculatum, Northern Maidenhair Fern Adiantum pedatum, Jacobs Ladder Polemonium reptans*, Northern Sea Oats Chasmanthium latifolium, Alum Root Heuchera americana, Cherry Birch Betula lenta*, Bowman’s Root Gillenia trifoliata, Bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Wild Columbine Aquilegia canadensis, Staghorn Sumac Rhus typhina*, Jumpseed Persicaria virginiana.

*Available at Return of the Native

The plant list is being updated regularly at this time of year. Check it out!
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