Early Spring Planting: Which Native Plants to Grow and Why
by Lauren Landers April 13, 2023
Enjoy bright flowers earlier in spring by sowing these colorful Maine natives!
After the long winter, there is much to be excited about when spring finally arrives. The weather warms, migratory birds return and, of course, flowers start to bloom!
Spring-blooming native plants are some of the first plants to flower, and they may begin to bloom long before non-native ornamentals—like hyacinth and tulips—emerge. If you want to enjoy early color in your garden this spring, these colorful native flowers are some of the best plants to grow.
Tip: You’ll be able to find some of these plants at our upcoming annual spring native plant sale!
15 native plants to grow for spring flowers
Whether you have a sunny or shady garden, you’ll find native flowers to plant in your spring garden in the list below. Try out one of these plants this year, or plant a few of them together in your garden beds for lots of springtime color for you (and pollinators!) to enjoy.
Photo credits (l-r): Aquilegia canadensis, Martha B. Moss; Sanguinaria canadensis, NGBH; Tiarella cordifolia, NGBH; Polygonatum biflorum, NGBH; Caltha palustris, Martha B. Moss
1. Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
A native wildflower that grows along the edges of wooded areas, red columbine are hardy plants that can adapt to both sun and shade. Well-known for their spurred red and yellow flowers, Eastern red columbine blooms throughout spring. They are highly attractive to pollinators, including hummingbirds and hawkmoths. Growing up to 30” tall, these plants can handle dry soil, although they will grow even better with regular watering. Eastern red columbine can be planted in spring or autumn, but seeds should be cold stratified when planted in spring. These plants are also prolific at self-sowing if you don’t deadhead spent blooms!
2. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot is a curious looking spring ephemeral with large, lobed leaves and delicate white flowers. Like other ephemerals, bloodroot blooms early in the season, and then the plant dies back as temperatures rise in late summer. But not to worry—bloodroot is a sturdy native perennial that will come back year after year, even in shady locations.
3. Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)
Foamflower blooms frothy sprays of white to pale pink flowers, which pollinators can’t resist. These easygoing plants grow best in full sun and moderately moist soil. When mature, foamflowers spread via underground rhizomes and can form an attractive groundcover for weed suppression.
4. Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum)
Another woodland favorite, Solomon’s seal is native to areas throughout North America and prefers part shade. A very distinct looking plant, Solomon’s seal isn’t as showy as some other native plants, but it still has a lot of charm. Solomon’s seal features finely arching stems that come alive with tubular, white flowers in spring.
5. Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
If you happen to have a rain garden or a poorly draining spot in your yard, you may want to try out some marsh marigold. Also known as cowslips, marsh marigolds are more closely related to buttercups than marigolds. When in bloom, marsh marigolds produce bright, golden-yellow flowers that attract butterflies and other beneficial insects. These water lovers will grow happily in boggy soil or in small ponds with their roots fully submerged in water, but they do require full sun. While marsh marigold can be grown from seed, it can take up to 3 years to get flowers this way. For earlier blooms, you can also divide existing marsh marigolds to create new plants.
Photo credits (l-r): Erythronium americanum, NGBH; Anemonella thalictroides, NGBH; Anemone americana, Cathy Rees; Trillium , Martha B. Moss
6. Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), not pictured
Another spring-blooming native plant, dutchman’s breeches have oddly-shaped white flowers that look a bit like inverted pantaloons! Flowers bloom on slender stems that appear above the plant’s lacy foliage. A good choice for shady spots, dutchman’s breeches spreads easily by underground corms, and the flowers are irresistible to bumblebees!
7. Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)
For lots of spring garden color, trout lilies are hard to beat. These ephemerals die back in summer, but before they do, they produce noddy, yellow flowers that are primarily pollinated by mining bees. This plant is named for its patterned foliage, which is said to resemble the scales of a trout. Sow trout lilies in full to part shade and be patient, as it can take these flowers a few seasons to begin to bloom.
8. Rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides)
Another member of the buttercup family, rue anemone has delicate white to pale pink flowers that look a bit like strawberry blossoms. Flowers appear in early spring, and the plant is easy to propagate by dividing its tuberous root system. Sowing rue anemone beneath deciduous trees can work quite well as these plants will benefit from the dappled light and then go dormant before the trees fully leaf out.
9. Liverwort (Anemone americana)
Also known as blunt-lobed hepatica or liverleaf, liverwort is a diminutive spring-bloomer with darling purple flowers. When mature, this plant maxes out at around 6” tall. It blooms in April or May. Growing best in shade, liverwort is a good plant to try if you’re looking for a native flower that will easily become naturalized in a woodland garden.
10. Trillium (Trillium spp.)
Trillium are very distinct looking plants with three large petals. Maine has 3 native trillium varieties: white trillium, painted trillium and red trillium. Trilliums are slow growing plants and they are often overharvested in the wild, so be sure to only purchase trilliums from reputable suppliers.
Photo credits (l-r): Arisaema triphyllum, NGBH; Lupinis perennis, Martha B. Moss; Packera aurea, Martha B. Moss; Chamaepericlymenum canadense, Martha B. Moss
11. Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)
Always popular with children, jack in the pulpit is a funky looking species that resembles carnivorous plants, like pitcher plants. However, despite its unique look, this plant isn’t carnivorous, although its flower is meant to lure in insects for pollinator purposes. Growing best in shade, jack in the pulpit prefers moist soil and it sometimes produces clusters of red berries in autumn.
12. Sundial lupine (Lupinis perennis)
Sundial or wild lupine are native to New England; however, they’ve become hard to find due to habitat loss and other factors. Today, you’ll only find sundial lupine growing in people’s gardens, since they no longer live in the wild in Maine. Compared to non-native bigleaf lupines, sundial lupine blooms a bit earlier in spring, and they have smaller flowers. Sundial lupine look best when planted in drifts, where their purple, blue and white pea-like flowers will show to their fullest. Lupines thrive in full sun to part shade and prefer well-drained, sandy soil. And, don’t forget, lupines are nitrogen-fixers so they can improve poor soil too!
13. Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), not pictured
Blue cohosh flowers aren’t particularly showy, but they bloom reliably in spring. When the yellow flowers fade, blue cohosh produces bunches of bright blue berries, which are pretty although inedible. Sow blue cohosh in part shade and water your plants regularly for best results.
14. Butterweed (Packera aurea)
Also called golden groundsel, butterweed is a member of the Aster family and it will warm up your spring garden with bright yellow, daisy-like flowers! Growing up to 2’ high, butterweed can grow in sunny or shady gardens. It is also naturally deer resistant, which makes it a good choice if you have a lot of deer in your area. Butterweed naturally grows along stream banks and in other moist areas. In the garden, it prefers a bit of extra water and it can even be grown in damp locations.
15. Bunchberry (Chamaepericlymenum canadense)
A member of the dogwood family, bunchberry is an attractive groundcover that blooms pretty, white flowers in spring. But this plant can also be enjoyed later in the growing season when it produces red berries and the leaves change color in autumn. A shade-loving plant, bunchberry will naturally grow in thick patches, and it can be sown beneath deciduous or evergreen trees.
Why are early spring natives so important?
Native plants are stunning additions to any garden and will liven up your beds with new colors, forms and textures. But there are so many more reasons to grow native spring perennials—because native plants are some of the first flowers to grow in spring, they are an essential food source for early emerging pollinators, like native bees. Sowing spring natives will ensure that any pollinators that arrive in your garden will have plenty of nectar and pollen to feast on. This supports pollinator populations and helps them bounce back after the long winter season. What’s more, because native plants and native pollinators evolved side by side, native plants are especially suited to the foraging habits of our local pollinators. While non-native plants may have pollen and nectar, native plants are up to 4 times more attractive to native pollinators! If you’d like to learn more about the best native plants to grow in Maine, be sure to consult the Native Gardens of Blue Hill plant database!
· Native Gardens of Blue Hill: Plant Database
· Maine.Gov: “Native Perennials: Flowering Plants”
· Wild Seed Project: “Native Pollinator Plants by Season of Bloom”
· Penn State University: “Provide Food for Pollinators”