Blue week at Sandhill Gardens

In the Garden
Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener

      It is a blue week at Sandhill Gardens.  No, there is nothing making anyone sad.  For about three weeks in early spring, true blue flowers grace several beds in the gardens.  True blue is the rarest color in the garden.  “Roses are red, violets are blue…”  We all know that is not true.  While there are some gray-blue Confederate violets, most violets are actually purple.  In fact, for most of the time, the blue in the garden comes from the many cobalt planters and accent pieces I have acquired over the years.  Right now, though, there are blue flowers in gardens!!!  That is exciting to me.
     The true star of this blue extravaganza is the native wildflower known as Virginia bluebells.  The plant has large, gray-green leaves, standing 12 to 15 inches tall.  Pink buds open to sky-blue bell-shaped blossoms, which also have a pleasing, delicate scent.  Anyone who has happened upon such a display in the woods knows how exciting the discovery can be.  Bluebells tend to grow in masses, so the display is impressive.  It takes patience to re-create this sight in your garden.  Do not attempt to transplant them from the wild, where they are considered threatened, due to habitat loss.  Bluebells have a long taproot, making them nearly impossible to transplant.  Young seedlings may be transplanted, but it takes four to five years for such seedlings to reach blooming size, and several more years for them to seed and grow the number of plants to create a display.  Plants may be purchased from native plant nurseries.  After blooming and setting seed, the ephemeral plants die back.  In my garden, they are planted where hostas and ferns are just now coming up.  The foliage of these plants will hide the dying bluebell foliage.
     Another plant with blue flowers is the brunnera, or Siberian bugloss.  Brunneras will stick around for the summer, and are usually grown for the striking foliage.  The leaves range from sage green to nearly white.  While some are solid-colored, most have some eye-catching veining.   The variegations vary greatly.  Some of the cultivars have leaves that rival the size of hosta leaves, but most produce 4-inch heart-shaped leaves.  However, early in the spring, the brunnera puts out tall stems on which tiny blue flowers are borne.  I find these blooming wands enchanting.  Many people refer to them as perennial forget-me-nots, although brunnera is not related to the annual of that name.  Cutting back the bloom stems sometimes results in a second flush of blooms, but even if that does not happen, the leaves of brunnera provide interest in the shade garden for the rest of the growing season.  Once established, the plants are drought tolerant and have few insect and disease problems.  They are not a favorite deer snack.
     Another blue flower now in bloom is Anchusa azurea.  Commonly known as Itallian bugloss, there are many varieties of anchusa.  Use care if planting these flowers, as some have become invasive in more southern climates.  The ones I have are a well-behaved groundcover, standing less than 4 inches tall and speckled with tiny blue flowers.  Mine are in dry shade, growing under a wooden platform on a playground.  Once they have finished flowering, the miniature hostas growing there will hide the anchusa foliage.
     The final blue flower in bloom this spring are on some varieties of pulmonaria.  Commonly called lungwort, because the fuzzy leaves of this spring bloomer are spotted, reminding one of spots on the lungs.  Not all lungworts have true blue blossoms.  Some varieties have purple, pink and even white blooms during various stages.  Look for cultivars such as Mrs. Moon and Trevi Fountain for the best blue flowers.
     This blue period in the garden will only last for a few short weeks.  Later, a glaucous coating on leaves of some hostas and other plants will supply a little blue, but if you want to enjoy blue blooms, you need to do so now.  They are sure to bring a smile.



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