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.