Spring is such an exciting time in the garden, the cold of winter has given way to longer and warmer days, and the early season gems arise from their winter slumber. After a relatively bare winter any flowers would appeal to the gardener, but for those with diverse tastes nature lays on a veritable banquet for the senses.

 Hellebore 'Double Queen Mixed'

Traditional Cornish gardens are based around the spring flowering shrubs, namely Magnolias, Rhododendrons and Camellias. Whilst I do marvel at the display of the two former I find they can grow rather large, so it is the latter, the Camellias, that I make particular room for in my garden. To me Camellias have extra benefits- evergreen and strong in shape they provide both structure and shelter during the winter, but also provide a dazzling range of flower forms and colours in every shade from dark reds through to white (some even have a hint of yellow!).         

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    A few Camellias (clockwise from top left): 'Little Bit', 'Dark of the Moon', 'Mark Alan', 'Margaret Davis', 'Snow Drop', 'Jury's Yellow'     

Camellias aren't the only spring flowering shrubs that provide a display without growing to tree-like proportions. One of the most popular must be Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida' (below), a 'witch hazel' prized for it's wiry pale yellow flowers with an intoxicating perfume. Over time all of the Hamamelis cultivars will grow to make a large shrub, but they do take their time and will, in the meantime, provide regular displays of spring flowers and autumn leaf colour

An interesting member of the Hamamelis family, Sycopsis sinensis, (below) bears leathery dark green leaves all year, but to mark the onset of spring sprouts unusual clusters of peach coloured anthers from it's stems. It certainly seems hardy here in east Cornwall, showing no damage after frosts of -8 degrees centigrade, and is probably hardy elsewhere.

More conventional flowers but still causing a stir… Calycanthus x raulstonii 'Hartlage Wine' (below) is arguably one of the most exciting new shrubs in the last few years. There has been a name change- 'Hartlage Wine' is the result of crossing Sinocalycanthus chinensis with Calycanthus floridus to make X Sinocalycalycanthus raulstonii (from which 'Hartlage Wine' was selected). Since the cross was made the genus Sinocalycanthus has been merged into (i.e. the species have been moved to) Calycanthus; thus Sinocalycalycanthus is now Calycanthus. I mention this in case you see it under it's old name in a catalogue. Under whatever name this is still a very special shrub. In spring the large leaves emerge followed very shortly by spice or wine red flowers edged with a little white. The arching habit of this shrub wouldn't suit a formal area, but the flowers are charming, large, beautiful… a must for a partially shaded piece of garden.

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Hellebores and I've spent many years looking at the various hybrids in garden centres and nurseries. Hellebores won't come true from seed, so if you collect from your own plants then you really could get nearly any colour or form. Until recently double flowering forms were especially rare and expensive, but thanks to the wonders of micro propagation they can be enjoyed by any gardener. The 'Double Queen' series of Hellebores is distributed as a mix of different colours, but I have yet to see a bad one. Here are a few Hellebores from my own garden.

 
 
 
Just a few of the Hellebores in my collection- the double flowered ones are from the 'Double Queen Mixed' series.
As well as collecting Hellebores I have been turning my attention to Epimediums. For many years there were a handful of species and hybrids around, but in the last few years the number of species being discovered in the wild has shot up, with many exciting new introductions becoming parents for some excellent hybrids.
Epimedium grandiflorum 'Queen Esta'- I have done nothing to this image and I promise that this is exactly what the plant looks like in spring! The flowers simply come as a bonus a few weeks later...

 Epimedium fargesii- this flower demands to be examined closely
Arguably one of the most exciting introductions in the world of Epimediums has been E. 'Amber Queen' (below). This particular hybrid flowers from mid spring to around June in my garden, with tall spikes of very big flowers. I would recommend this hybrid to anyone.
That's not to say that the other Epimediums aren't worth having! One of the most reliable and cheerful garden plants is E. x versicolor 'Versicolor' (left)- it is bold in leaf, charming in flower and tough in constitution. Also generally very adaptable is Epimedium grandiflorum, and this species has produced a great number of hybrids, many of which feature colours not often seen in the other Epimedium species. One of my favorites is E. grandiflorum 'Purple Prince' (right).
 
Sometimes gardening isn't all about big flowers, and this is where the tiny flowers of Epimedium pubescens (left) and E. myrianthum (right) come in. Although each tiny dart-like flower is insignificant (although beautiful) on it's own, the flowers en masse look like clouds of steam or tiny insects hovering just above the emerging leaves. They are stunning in their own right, and planted with ground cover plants like Heucherella 'Kimono' or small Hosta cultivars the effect is particularly good.
Until recently I was not really a massive fan of Primulas... but now I have started to get into them. I tend to gravitate to the species, but I've found that some of the Primula hybrids around are to my taste. I have been particularly taken with Primula sieboldii cultivars, such as 'Pago Pago' (left), 'Noboruko' (centre) and 'Snowflake' (right). Known as 'Japanese Cherry Blossom Primula', Primula sieboldii is a summer dormant species found along river banks. It seems to be pretty hardy and tough, despite it's delicate looks! Hopefully my suppliers will have a website soon, and I will post a link in due course.
I have decided to try one particularly special Primula; the blood red flowers of P. maximowizcii (below) caught my eye instantly! Seemingly not all that difficult in a moist but fairly open soil (good rich leafmould is excellent), this species stands out.
 
Of course no summary of spring in the garden could forget the valuable contribution made by spring bulbs. I find myself drawn ever deeper into an interest in the tiny but vibrant colours of Ipheion uniflorum and it's cultivars, my particular favourite at the moment being I. uniflorum 'Rolf Fiedler' (below).
Snowdrops somehow epitomise early spring, but surely there's only a handful of forms? Ask any 'galanthophile' (Galanthus being the botanical name for snowdrop) and they will rave on about tall ones, short ones, double ones, single ones, broad leaves, narrow leaves, markings, plain petals… even one variety where each bulb sends up different flowers every year! I have yet to really delve deep into galanthophilia, but here are a few of my favorites.

 

Three unusual snowdrops: G. 'Wendy's Gold', G. elwesii var. hiemalis, G. 'Sam Arnott'

The snowdrops love a moist but 'woodsy' soil amongst deciduous trees where they will bulk up well over time, as do Erythroniums. Best known of the Erythroniums must be the 'Dog's Tooth Violets', Erythronium dens-canis, but there are again many species and cultivars. My favourite species is E. tuolumnense (below) which has large well presented flowers of buttercup yellow, and most importantly is a reliable species!

A beautiful break from the normal whites and yellows of many Erythroniums is the charming and elegant Erythronium 'Knightshayes Pink' (below). Raised in the National Trust's garden at Knightshayes House this cultivar has instant appeal, and I am delighted to have it back in my collection (my previous plant was eaten by mice; don't let that put you off- firmly planted in the garden the mice shouldn't try to dig it up!).

I also have a collection of carnivorous plants (although they have yet to feature on this site), and every year the first to flower is a charming European Butterwort, Pinguicula grandiflora. This viola-esque flower is charming in itself, but when the leaves unfurl and eat unwary whitefly this plant's place in my cold greenhouse is assured! Note this picture has been significantly enlarged to show the detail!