For early spring bloom
Visitors to my Virginia garden (Zone 7) are always surprised to learn that cyclamen grow outdoors—not the popular florist's cyclamen, which is quite tender, but the delicate and charming baby, or hardy, cyclamen (Cyclamen coum). Heart-shaped leaves mottled with gray or silver appear in autumn and are joined in late winter and spring by enchanting pink or white flowers with five swept-back petals. Judith Tyler of Pine Knot Farms, Clarksville, Virginia (Zone 7), also recommends Cyclamen repandum, which is "a bit less hardy but stunning in foliage and flower. Deep pink flowers accent the black-green leaves patterned with gray."
For late spring/early summer bloom
The oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) is a true aristocrat of the early summer border. The huge crepe-paper flowers in fiesta colors seem to usher in the vacation months. After flowering, however, the plants quietly fold up and remain dormant until autumn, when a fresh rosette of foliage appears. Hilary Cox of Leescapes Garden Design in Avon, Indiana (Zone 5), loves their vibrant colors, which look good in perennial borders and in formal situations. "When they start to look ratty, I cut them down and let blowsy perennials like geraniums and Japanese anemone (A. x hybrida) fill the empty spots." Lucy Hardiman of Portland, Oregon (Zone 8), recommends 'Patty's Plum', "a dusty purple selection with enormous flowers used to create unusual combinations with orange wallflowers (Erysimum spp.), and salmon colored cape fuchsia (Phygelius spp.) to hide the declining foliage."
The following plants thrive in neutral, humus-rich soil that is moist in winter and spring but can be allowed to dry out in summer:
For early spring bloom
The charming rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides) is aptly named, says Tyler. "The flowers tremble on the thin wiry stems in the slightest breeze." In wooded areas throughout central Indiana, rue anemones grow "in cloudlike drifts of pink and white," says Cox. "I value this underused native plant as a delicate groundcover, interplanted with ferns and early wildflowers like Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) and prairie trillium (T. recurvatum)."
For midspring bloom
The old-fashioned bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.) is familiar to many gardeners, but a new cultivar is causing quite a sensation. "I adore the gold-leaved selection 'Goldheart'," says Hardiman. "Plant it with dark purple 'Queen of Night' tulips, hot pink 'Elizabeth Arden' tulips, and golden hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola') for a traffic-stopping combination." I use the white selection 'Pantaloons' in partial shade along with the sea-green horseshoes of eastern maidenhair fern.
For mid- to late spring bloom
The beautiful blue-violet flowers of the Lebanese geranium (Geranium libani) open in spring, long before most other hardy geraniums. "The plants are perfect for a dry shady spot, even where tree roots pose a problem for other perennials," say Ernie and Marietta O'Byrne, owners of Northwest Gardens Nursery in Eugene, Oregon (Zone 7). "They go dormant after flowering, and miraculously reemerge with lush foliage in autumn that carries over until spring." Knobby, tuberous roots give the plant extreme drought tolerance.