Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’
February came in like a lamb, and it’s trying to muster a roar as it takes advantage of leap year’s extra day of winter. Signs of green are everywhere, despite the official start to spring still weeks away. Northern gardeners like us know that the joke could be on us if we get too accustomed to this mild weather, before March has played out. But how can we not be giddy when a walk about the garden revealed these beacons of spring heralding the new season?
Nodding Double Snowdrops
Helleborus ‘Wester Flisk’
Helleborus ‘Jade Tiger’
Almost Black Helleborus
The Galanthus (Snowdrops) are not too big a surprise, but little Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ usually waits until late March to show off. Helleborus foetidus ‘Wester Flisk’ looks rather well this year, thanks to the mild winter. Helleborus ‘Jade Tiger’ which we planted last year, proudly displays his first flower, but an older clump of an almost black Hellebore is not quite sure if it’s safe yet. For the past 3 weeks, the witchhazel ‘Feuerzauber’ has been emitting the sweetest perfume. What little gems do you have in bloom in your garden right now?
Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’, commonly known as Double Blood Root is one of the eastern seaboard’s most lovely spring ephemerals, (that is to say, perennials which emerge with the first sweep of warm weather, and almost as quickly pass, retreating over the next few months into summer dormancy). Here in New England, Double Blood Root begins to poke through the brown earth in mid April, displaying pristine white multi petaled water lily shaped blossoms cupped in barely visible blue green leaves. We always hope that the weather conditions will not be too hot and relatively calm when our Blood Root opens. Too much wind or warm temperatures will shorten the floral display.
Double Blood Root stands on short stems reaching just under 6″ tall. It grows best in rich, humusy, but well drained soil in a partial to deeply shaded site. The rhizomes slowly spread to from dense clumps over time and when severed, exude a deep red liquid, hence the common name (sanguine = bloody). As the blossoms fade, the attractive blue green kidney shaped foliage grows larger in size, photosynthesizing to store energy for the roots below. It is advisable to mark the spot where Blood Root is growing. By mid summer, these attractive leaves will begin to fade into dormancy, and you might easily disturb the area by over planting. Good companion plants for Sanguinaria are mid season bulbs, Tillium, Podophylllum, Asarum, Epimedium, Iris cristata, Woodland Phlox, and Brunnera.
So many of the earliest spring bloomers are diminutive in size, and invite you to kneel or even lie on your belly for the best viewing. Blooming with the early Crocus, the lovely and demure Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ first appears as a pale yellow-green shoot, and then begins to unfurl to display falls and standards in the most ethereal shade of pale aqua etched with baby blue. Pastel orange-yellow markings accent the falls, and as her flower ages, ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ fades to delicious shades of blue-gray.
Although it is often sold as I. reticulata, Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ is in fact a cross between 2 species, I. histroides, native to Turkey and I. winogradowii native to the Caucasus. She is a hardy soul, surviving in zones 4-9, and grows 4-8″ tall, preferring a well drained sunny situation that gets adequate moisture in late winter and dryness in summer. Planting and dividing is best done in the fall, but mark then spot, because she goes dormant in early summer.