In the Garden:
Middle South
May, 2011
Regional Report

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Experts say Spanish bluebells are one of the best bulbs for dry shade.

Restraint Paying Dividends in Spring Garden

When my husband and I moved to a 60-year old home in an established neighborhood last autumn, I decided to take a wait-and-see approach with the garden. I needed time, I reasoned, to figure out the drainage patterns around the house and observe the amount of sunlight through the seasons, as well as to test the soil. And of course, I didn't want to accidentally dig into dormant plants or rip out something of merit because I didn't know its worth, either.

Now that spring has arrived, my restraint is paying off. The seasonal show began early with crocuses and has continued over the course of many weeks, with the garden offering up one surprise after another. Among the many delights, the following plants have already become favorites.

'Jane' Magnolia (Magnolia liliflora x M. stellata)
Though I've grown several cultivars of our native evergreen magnolia (M. grandiflora), the Southern classic with glossy leaves and creamy, lemon-scented flowers, I had never cultivated the deciduous type which blooms on bare wood before the leaves begin to grow. All that changed when 'Jane', a hybrid magnolia with tulip-shaped flowers that are reddish-purple on the outside and white on the inside, waved her gracious blooms outside the dining room window in the first days of March.

'Jane' belongs to a group of hybrids known affectionately as "the little girls," which also includes 'Ann', 'Betty', 'Judy', 'Pinkie', 'Randi', 'Ricki', and 'Susan'. These selections were developed by the U.S. Arboretum to bloom two weeks later than the star and saucer magnolias, thus decreasing the likelihood of frost damage. All the "girls" bloom in shades of pink or purple, grow as multistemmed shrubs or small trees, and offer occasional summer flowers. By all accounts, 'Jane' is one of the most popular selections, and is both vigorous and easy to grow.

Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina)
Native to the Southeast, Carolina silverbell is an elegant tree that offers clusters of bell-shaped white flowers that dangle just below the branch tips. In my new garden, they grow in abundance "over the wall," a natural woodland area beyond a retaining wall that slopes to the Reedy River in a series of natural and man-made terraces.

These understory trees, flourishing beneath towering hardwoods, have a distinctive zebra-striped bark, so I wasn't surprised by their mid-March blooms. They are a rare treasure, though, as they don't transplant easily and have exacting requirements, needing both moist soil and excellent drainage.

Little Sweet Betsy Trillium (Trillium cuneatum)
If you asked me the name of my favorite wildflower, I wouldn't miss a beat. I was thrilled to find little sweet Betsy trillium standing at her full height of 15-inches before the end of March. Each stem of this low-growing perennial herb is topped with a whorl of three mottled leaves and a single flower comprised of three erect, dark red petals. Like the halesia, trilliums grow best in shady, woodsy sites.

I found Little Betsy in the front garden first, under a stand of evergreen azaleas blooming in a shocking array of Easter-egg colors. She also struts her stuff "over the wall," in a dozen or more clumps, one of which has 18 blooms. Unfortunately, this area is also home to a number of exotic invasives, such as English ivy, and it will take years of persistence to eradicate them from what I hope will become a native-only garden.

Spanish Bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica)
Dotted in large groups in more than a half dozen locations in the front garden, Spanish bluebells kept me guessing at their identity until their distinctive flower spikes rose in soldier-like precision above strap-shaped foliage. Though the leaves began to emerge about the same time as the daffodil foliage in early February, the flowers didn't begin to open until the second week of April.

When they finally appeared, the cheerful blooms stole my heart. They resemble hyacinths, but with taller, looser flower clusters. Experts say they are one of the best bulbs for dry shade, which is good news, as they grow among hostas and ferns under a group of tall oaks and tulip poplars.


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