Today is all about Spring flowers for the shade garden! Two of my favorite shade plants are Aquilegia, commonly called Columbine, and Brunnera. These are great spring flowers for the shade garden. Brunnera Jack Frost is my favorite variety so far and I’ll primarily be talking about him as we discuss Brunnera. Overall, both plants are extremely easy to grow. Both like well drained soil with average moisture, neither like constantly soggy roots, neither want to be in the desert. They both need shade or partial shade, more shade especially where summers are hot.

The Difficult Question

Perhaps the most common question gardeners ask me is “How long does this bloom?” This is an especially difficult question to answer with Spring blooming plants. The difficulty is due to both the weather and the purpose of plants like Brunnera and Columbine in the garden. These plants are harbingers of Spring. When the vibrant tall Phlox is just barely starting to grow, Shasta daisies are just lush green mounds, and Russian sage seems barely alive, Brunnera and Aquilegia are at their best. These plants grow quickly during cold Spring weather to produce vibrant color in spite of temperatures. Cold weather actually increases the bloom season for both of these plants. Brunnera and Aquilegia love those chilly damp days in the Spring but when the weather turns hot and dry, their season of bloom comes to an end.

This year was an excellent example. Upstate New York experienced a delightfully long warm spell in April followed by a frigid cool down in May. My Brunnera has been blooming for a solid 2 months and my Columbine for about 7 weeks. They have had a spectacular season. Now, this past week temperatures have soared into the 80’s and low 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the flowers are fading fast and this will always be the case. When the hot weather comes, the Spring bloomers will stop flowering, giving way to their summer blooming counterparts. This timing will be different every year, but that is OK. When the hot weather comes, the summer blooming plants burst forth with growth and begin to bloom. As a result the focus of the garden shifts to them. It is the natural succession of flowers, and its beauty does not keep to a calendar.

Now, let’s take a closer look at each plant individually.

Aquilegia, common name Columbine

Aquilegia are perfect for a shady, or lightly shady garden. They need good drainage to thrive. The foliage of these plants is not very exciting, but there are no other flowers that look like Columbine. This is one of the showiest Spring flowers for the shade garden. Five inner petals are surrounded by spurs which are shaped like nodding birds. The flowers are available in a rainbow of colors. Glowing yellow, soft white, lavender purple (called blue), Pink, rose, red, and a plum burgundy are the most common colors. Some varieties, like McKana Giants, might have spurs of one color and sepals (the inner petals) of a contrasting color. Columbine bloom through the month of May and into June (this year, they actually started blooming in April) and they readily reseed in my garden. Sometimes, in hot summers Columbine start to look tired. You will know what I mean when it happens. At this point, you can cut it back to a couple inches above the ground and a low mound of happier foliage will come back for the rest of the season. Remember if you cut it back, do not over water the plant. It will need less water until the new growth has fully come up.

Favorite Cultivars

There are so many varieties of Columbine, but I like the older strains.

  • Barlow Series – A very old strain, profuse small nodding flowers on 36” stems. This is the best for the cut flower garden.
  • Aquilegia canadensis – 18-21” tall, NY native variety with red and yellow bicolor blooms. This is typically one of the first nectar flowers for hummingbirds when they migrate back to New York.
  • McKana’s Giant Mix – Large flowers on 30” tall plants
  • Origami Series – Large flowers like McKana’s Giant, but dwarf 12-15” tall plants.

Brunnera, common name Siberian Bugloss

Brunnera, Jack Frost, Blue Flower, perennial, shade plant, shade garden, silver leaf
Brunnera Jack Frost

I have Brunnera planted under my Lilac bushes. They have not spread as quickly under there as in gardens with moist soil, but the heart shaped leaves and pure blue flowers are just beautiful around the tall Lilac. Brunnera Jack Frost is a hybrid that I have been growing for many years, the leaves are silver with green veins. This brings a brightness into any dark corner that is especially attractive at dusk. Shade gardens are an excellent opportunity to play with foliage colors and textures. Be imaginative, think beyond the flowers! Blooms are great, but foliage is something you will see all year no matter what the weather. For example, Brunnera has long since finished blooming when Black Cohosh begins to flower in the fall, but the Black Cohosh called Cimicifuga Black Beauty has dark burgundy foliage on tall upright plants. So, the foliage contrast is incredibly striking. The pairing is beautiful all year even without the blooms. That being said, when Brunnera does flower, it does not disappoint. Above the mounding foliage, airy sprays of true pastel blue bring soft color to the garden and typically last for a couple months in the Spring. These Spring flowers for the shade garden are often mistaken for the equally blue Forget-Me-Not (Myosotys), but Brunnera will be better behaved in a structured garden. Forget-Me-Nots reseed everywhere, which I think is great, but that is a story for another blogpost.

  • Brunnera macrophylla, the original species, this plant has fuzzy green heart shaped leaves and blue flowers. I have it in my garden, but it is not nearly as showy as the hybrids.
  • Brunnera Jack Frost, this is the most common hybrid and it is my favorite one that I have. The silver leaves are striking in the shade.
  • Brunnera Alexander’s Great, I don’t have this one yet, but it is on my wish list! This is like a Brunnera on steroids. The leaves are significantly larger and form impressively showy mounds. Someday, it will be in my garden!

Common Complaints

I have heard both plants described by gardeners as “spreading all over the place” and I have also heard people complain that the plants do not spread as well as expected. While this seems extreme, it is entirely due to the individual micro-climates within each yard. Let’s take a closer look at how each of these plants grow.

Columbine no matter which variety you choose, form small clumping plants which do not spread much themselves. In the ideal setting, after bloom, countless seeds form and scatter about. This results in numerous baby seedlings popping up around the parent plant. This will not happen if the garden is mulched. A nice thick layer of bark mulch is a wonderful thing. It helps keep moisture around the roots of the plants, and as it decomposes, the soil is enriched by its compost. However, mulch also prevents weed seeds from sprouting as well as garden flower seeds. So, I mulch near my columbine, but not around my columbine. Sometimes, I’ll thinly scatter a showing of mulch, so from a distance it looks tidy, but not enough to stifle my columbine babies.

Brunnera spread slowly by way of their rhizomatic root system. They form a clump which just keeps getting wider and larger over time. Mine has spread at a snail’s pace, while I have friends whose plants are bursting with life. The slow spread of mine is caused by the Sahara Desert like dryness in this part of my yard. The plants can only work with what they are given and mine are half starved. Even moisture and a smidge of fertilizer or mulch would really help my plant get going. Gardeners who regularly irrigate their gardens frequently are most likely to say Brunnera spreads in their gardens especially in the third year, when the plants are thoroughly established.

Brunnera, Jack Frost, Blue Flower, perennial, shade plant, shade garden, silver leaf
Brunnera Jack Frost

Companion plants for both Brunnera and Aquilegia

Both Columbine and Brunnera have delicate and airy looking flowers, so I like to plant them with companion plants which have more substantial presence. For instance,

  • Dicentra – Bleeding Heart, these grow large mounded plants with arching sprays of heart shaped flowers. The variety Dicentra Valentine has coral flowers and red stems which contrast brilliantly with the Brunnera
  • Primrose, there are many varieties and species of primrose, and their charming flowers are a classic combination with both Brunnera and Aquilegia.
  • Perennial Geranium – Geranium sanguinium Max Frei, these are one of my favorite plants, they have a strong sentimental attachment for me. And the small divided leaves contrast sharply with the large heart shaped leaves of the Brunnera while the mounding habit and round flowers contrast nicely with the airy Aquilegia.

Aquilegia canadensis, Columbine, Native Columbine, Native Aquilegia, Coral, Orange, Yellow, Flower, Hummingbird
Aquilegia canadensis, New York native