OK, I know it’s early February and all that… but surely the gods of weather could give us a break? It can’t even be much fun for them…. Still, perhaps it is.
I console myself by thinking of all those flower buds, minute, tight-furled, pale, awaiting a monstrous change. I think of them in bulb and bud hearts, in rhizome tips, corm centres, waiting.
It’s slightly harder to imagine the same thing happening in plants without all those pale and juicy leaf scales to protect the buds; things like pulmonarias, hepaticas, hellebores, erythroniums and so on. But, some day, I shall have to dissect the autumn ripened roots of Lathyrus vernus and find out how it stores its flowers over winter, to produce now those lovely clusters of extraordinary pea flowers in silky deep violet blue, edged mauve, with even a suggestion of magenta. That makes them something to keep well away from your yellow daffodils (unless you like the clash), though they look well with white ones.
The plant really needs a planting scheme all to itself, for it’s something you can hardly do without. As its flowers cut well, it gives you a comfortable way of trying, comfortably indoors, to combine it with other flowers to give it sympathetic company in the garden.
It’s a tough perennial, European, hardy, happy in almost any soil except peat bog, doesn’t mind some shade, and, in the usual form, has an intensity of colour unusual so early in the season. Oddly, of the several plants here, there are two sets of leaf types. One lot has broad, spear shaped leaflets. The other has narrow ones like poignards. The narrow leafed ones seem to flowers a week or more after the others. A subspecies? Probably not; a seed harvested from the broad leafed ones gave seedlings (now themselves in flower), the same division into two blade shapes.
There are also variations in flower colour, with some good shades of pink (even worse with daffodils), and a white. Whether they’re worth looking for is a moot point – that thrilling violet blue of the ordinary one seems the colour to go for. If you have space to keep it away from all the yellows of this time of year, then there’s plenty to plant beside it. If you like your colour associations strong, then it works prettily with early red tulips (and especially Tulipa clusiana in its basic ruby and white form). But if you like something quieter, and you are bored with pulmonarias, hepaticas, green flowered hellebores, marvellous and easy euphorbias like Euphorbia robbiae, then at least you could use some of the erythroniums. These, the dog’s tooth violets, boast some lovely things.
The only European one is Erythronium dens-canis, typically with chocolate spotted, emerald green leaves, and six-petalled flowers, swept upwards, and coloured, rather like an up-market cyclamen. They’re in flower by the second week in March, do splendidly in most parts of Scotland, even in sun (providing the soil is not too dry). Our species is lower in stature than the pea, so should be in front.
Some of the American erythroniums are as tall or taller, and it’s worth looking for fine things with blotched, veined, or plain leaves (the ‘plain’ ones in sometimes quite brilliant emerald greens). While the commonly found hybrids, like ‘Pagoda’, have white, cream, or yellow flowers, hunt for the ones with softish pink flowers, like the easy Erythronium revolutum. All the species are easy from seed.
If you wanted to add some acid blues, you needn’t look much further than the next bulb catalogue. Scilla species are just the thing, whether the cheap, robust, even invasive, S. sibirica, or some of the other mid-blue species. They all hybridise easily and it’s not always clear what you might get. At Branklyn, in Perth, the scillas were recently looking wonderful planted amongst erythroniums, even an elegant butter yellow form of E. tuolumnense.
You could use chionodoxas too, though the white central eye makes them rather flashy. But if you want white, then add some bulbs of Leucojum aestivum (easy from seed too). It’s a good bit taller, reaching well above the pea, its hanging six-petalled bells, sharply tipped with green, making a perfect foil to flowers below. All you need then is the enchanting forget-me-not flowered Brunnera macrophylla, nice as the basic species, though with amusing forms like the one called ‘Langtrees’, the leaves with a horseshoe of white blotches, or the grandly white splashed ‘Variegata’, and an outer planting of the underused Symphytum grandiflorum, whether ‘Roseum’ or ‘Hidcote Blue’.