Sunday, May 1, 2011

Native Spring Perennials in Georgia

Spring flowers occupy a special place in our hearts, delighting our winter-weary senses with their early blooms.  Mid-way through the season now, I thought I’d compile a list of the native spring perennials that bloom in North Georgia.  Plant enough of these and you’ll have a nice show every year.

The definition of perennial is that the plant returns year after year.  This post is about perennial flowers which are herbaceous.  Herbaceous means that their leaves and stems usually completely die back in the winter so that the only trace of them is a dead flower stalk or perhaps some dried foliage.  All new growth in spring comes from the ground. Flowering shrubs, which I am not discussing in this post, are woody which means that a stem is left in place and new growth sprouts from that stem.

In March, I posted about spring ephemeral flowers so I won’t cover those again here.  This post focuses on plants that bloom in the spring (February through May for the most part) and which have foliage that remains until frost.

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) is an early blooming plant found in woodlands through Atlanta.  Many years ago I transplanted some into my garden and found out what a gorgeous plant it can be there.  Not only does it form a robust clump, but the flowers are larger and the plant is very floriferous.  In very warm areas, the foliage may disappear come summer, but cool and moist areas usually allow it to keep going.  Try shearing it after the initial flowers have faded to get a second flush.

Thalictrum thalictroides

Aquilegia canadensis
According to the USDA Plants Database, columbine (Aquilegia) is found in every state in the U.S. except Hawaii and Louisiana.  The only one is Georgia is Aquilegia canadensis, which has a gorgeous red and yellow flower that rises airily above the blue-green foliage.  My original clump has slowly spread.  New babies have popped up in other places, and I have easily transplanted them to other places and given them to friends and the GNPS annual plant sale.

A couple of weeks ago I posted about my favorite spring blue perennials. Some of the persistent blues are dwarf iris (Iris cristata and Iris verna), Phacelia (which is technically a biennial and will fade the second year after flowering, but you’ll get new ones from seeds), and the violets (Viola). 

Here are three perennials that are very similar looking (and they are all in the Liliaceae family), especially when they are emerging in the spring.  Perfoliate Bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata) is the first to bloom.  The delicate, pale yellow bloom is deceiving – this is one of the toughest plants I know!  It’s a fun plant to show kids how stems can pierce though the leaves.  I also like Uvularia sessilifolia which blooms later in the season.  Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) is better known and is a tough perennial as well.  The arching blue-green stems with dangling bells are very attractive.  The flowers develop into dark blue balls (the fruit) later in the year.  The root structure is very distinctive – small annual growth scars create a rhizome that can look like a string of pearls over time. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you can see the tiny pollinator at work on the first bloom of the Solomon's seal.

Polygonatum biflorum with pollinator
Uvularia perfoliata
False solomon’s seal, which is now classified as Maianthemum racemosum, produces flowers on the end of the stem so it is distinctly different from “true” Solomon’s seal in bloom. The pink-reddish berries produced after the flowers are very attractive and persist long into the season.

Maianthemum racemosum
Cynoglossum virginianum

A perennial that I have recently acquired is the blue flowered “wild” Comfrey (Cynoglossum virginianum).  Note that this is not the same as “common Comfrey” (Symphytum officinale) which is non-native and has pink/purple flowers.  Both are in the Boraginaceae family.  Cynoglossum officinale, another non-native, is a European relative that has reddish/purple flowers that has become a bit weedy in certain areas.  As always, ask for the botanical name when purchasing flowers to ensure you are getting the native version.

Geranium maculatum

Geranium is one that might confuse people.  Native plants in the genus Geranium are not the same as the Pelargonium plants sold as “Geranium” in the stores.  Geranium maculatum is a modest, pink-flowering perennial of woodlands in North Georgia.  In a garden setting with good morning sun, it becomes a handsome clump.

We do have some “evergreen” herbaceous perennials.  Some leaves remain green throughout the winter until new growth appears.  The old leaves then fade away.  These plants include:

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata), Coral bells (Heuchera americana), Green n Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), Pussytoes (Antennaria ), Hepatica sp., and the evergreen gingers (Hexastylis sp).  Gingers have fascinating flowers; I enjoy showing them to kids and explaining that ants pollinate them because they are usually hidden under leaf litter.

Tiarella cordifolia

Tiarella cordifolia

Phlox subulata

Hexastylis shuttleworthii

Heuchera americana 'Dale's Strain'
Antennaria plantaginifolia

And if you thought those were good, just wait until you see the Summer Perennials!


  1. Very nice collection... These are in your personal garden?
    I very much appreciate a garden that isn't just the same collection of plants freshly decanted from the containers they arrived in... that every other garden in the neighborhood has...
    Back before container grown plants, there used to be swathes of the same plant in large communities that covered several acres... And now? Large swathes of imported exotics that cover several acres... but no communities...

  2. Hi - only the Phlox subulata is not in my yard; it is growing in a ditch about a mile from my house. I don't know if it was planted there long ago by someone or if it is wild. I suspect it was planted.

    Except for the Heuchera (a cultivar that I bought), the pictured plants are all rescues from local constructions sites (with permission).