We’re bound to ride the roller coaster ride called ‘springtime on Nantucket,’ over the next couple months, complete with swings in temperature and varying amounts of sunlight and rain. Undoubtedly, though, there will be days of glorious sunshine with temperatures struggling to meet 60 degrees. And while it’s still a little chilly to do much flower gardening, it’s certainly not too early to satisfy some of those horticultural urges. Spring flowers are remarkably tough and can go a long way to shaking off the winter blues.
Primula is a genus which includes hundreds of species including the common primrose (Primula vulgaris.) Most species have low growing foliage and flowers that range from ground cover height up to 36 inches. Primula obconica (German primrose) is the species most commonly seen for sale at garden centers in the spring. It is hardy in USDA zones 6-9, so it makes an ideal plant for us here. Available in a riot of colors, these work very well with spring bulbs, blooming the same time as tete-a-tetes, crocuses, and Chionodoxa. Cool spring temperatures allow them to have a very long blooming time. As I drive around, my eyes are drawn to tiny spots of bright colors up against warm foundations that face the sun. Hmmm…was that an Easter egg someone missed? No, it was a cluster of primroses! Primula veris is a common English wildflower called Cowslip. There are several other plants that Americans call cowslip though, so don’t be confused. Cowslip is not usually available commercially, so if you are inclined to have some, you will want to find the seed and grow it yourself. Another popular species is the Fairy Primrose (P.japonica) which is hardy to zone 5. This species needs shade and moisture to survive. Native to Japan, these come in shades of rose, purple and white and bloom in May and June. With stems reaching to 6-8”, the flowers appear in a sort of pyramid shape. Often the primroses found in garden centers and grocery stores are hybrids of P.obconica and another species, combining hardiness and beauty for a winning combination.
Ranunculus asiaticus, or Persian buttercup, is another spring bloomer and a member of the much larger buttercup family. Not hardy outdoors in our climate, they need to be grown in pots in a temperate environment, like a greenhouse or a sunroom. Once grown, they make a great substitute for daffodils in window boxes, as they last much longer. They look great planted with violas and pansies and other cool-weather-tolerant plants like candytuft and hyacinths. Ranunculus continues to set bud as long as the weather stays cool, so they are usually finished sometime in May…a cool spring and early summer will allow these spring beauties to last well into June. Another member of the ranunculus family is the buttercup that you see blooming in meadow in the summer. Most members of this family are poisonous, especially to wildlife, but their taste is extremely bitter, and keeps animals from munching. I haven’t seen deer eat these, but that doesn’t mean they won’t.
The history of pansies goes back to early Greece. The viola (predecessor of the modern-day pansy) was cultivated by the ancient Greeks for herbal medicine. The wild viola originated in continental Europe where it still grows in the wild today. By the 1850’s creative gardeners created crosses upon crosses between the viola and a wild pansy leading to the overabundance of varieties that are available today. Choosing pansy varieties to grow is a staggering challenge. We can choose from large, medium or small flowers, faces or no faces, whiskers or not, plain, bicolor or picotee, and every shade of color from every part of the rainbow and white to black. But the same excess of varieties gives home gardeners unlimited choices for their gardens of containers. Window boxes planted with a single variety of violas or pansies and some sort of greenery like ivy can provide a fairly formal look. Mixing up colors though, seems to be really popular in looking around the streets of Nantucket. Combining pansies with other plants like primroses and ranunculus provides a look reminiscent of a cottage garden.
Pansies are often winter hardy here, especially in mild winters. They do double duty in our zone, too, as they can be planted in early fall and provide color up until a killing frost. They will often live over the winter and begin blooming again in spring! If you are a novice in the garden, pansies and violas may be some of the easiest and most satisfying plants you can grow. They prefer a lot of sun, but can tolerate some shade. Middle of the day shade is perfect though, as the right light levels will help keep your plants blooming later. Full sun makes them too hot, and too much heat is what inevitably makes them stop setting buds.
All the spring plants here like similar conditions. Full to part sun, well-drained peaty soil, a little organic fertilizer every couple weeks and to have their dead blossoms taken off. That’s not a lot of effort to have your springtime be full of pretty flowers in and around your home.