Pacific Northwest Regional Reports

4 Outstanding Spring Plants for the Northwest

Fine Gardening – Issue 198
Downy Clematis

We all have certain plants that immediately come to mind when thinking of a garden in spring. For many, these are daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths skirting the trunks of flowering magnolias, cherries, and lilacs. But as William Cullina discusses in his article 9 Perennials to Liven Up Your Spring Garden, there are lots of out-of-the-ordinary or simply underappreciated plants that can elevate your spring garden to something spectacular.

Find some outstanding spring plants for the Northwest below. And discover even more surprising spring stars in 9 Perennials to Liven Up Your Spring Garden.


1. Western Columbine

Western Columbine
Photo: BBC Magazines Ltd./

Name: Aquilegia formosa

Zones: 4–9

Size: 24 to 30 inches tall and 12 inches wide

Conditions: Partial shade with protection from hot afternoon sun; adaptable to a range of soil conditions but prefers rich, moist, well-drained soil

Native range: Western North America

Overlooked by gardeners lured in by its fl ashier hybrid cousins, Western columbine has smaller, daintier flowers that display an elegance and charm lacking in the new compact cultivars. In midspring, this native wildflower sends up thin, gracefully arching, branched stems that sport bicolor blooms of reddish orange and yellow. The long, tapered spurs are a picture of elegance. Though short-lived, the plant will self-sow if you allow the seed heads to mature. Weave it in among late-emerging perennials, or add it to the edge of a woodland garden.


2. Merrybells

Photo: Michelle Gervais

Name: Uvularia grandiflora

Zones: 4–9

Size: 18 to 24 inches tall and 12 inches wide

Conditions: Partial shade; organically rich, consistently moist, well-drained soil

Native range: Eastern to central North America

This extraordinary wildflower should be in everyone’s garden. In early spring, vibrant green shoots emerge in a tight clump. Unusual perfoliate leaves encircle the graceful stems, which branch and arch at their tips, ending in one or two delicate, bright yellow, bell-shaped flowers with long, twisted petals. The leaves are pea green above and blue green below, which adds brightness to the shade garden. This is one of the most charming wildflowers.


3. Glory-of-the-Snow

Photo: Howard Rice/

Name: Scilla luciliae (syn. Chionodoxa luciliae)

Zones: 3–8

Size: 6 inches tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; tolerant of most soil types; drought tolerant once established

Native range: Western Turkey

This easy spring flower has long been overshadowed by larger blooming bulbs. The delight of glory-in-the-snow is the charming, star-shaped, violet-blue flowers, each with a bright white eye, that are produced in copious quantities in early spring. The early bloom period makes it a great companion for crocus (Crocus spp. and cvs., Zones 3–8) and snowdrops (Galanthus spp. and cvs., Zones 3–7). If allowed ample space, it can naturalize to form large patches, although in the Pacific Northwest it is rarely weedy.


4. Downy Clematis

Downy Clematis
Photo: Jonathan Buckley/

Name: Clematis macropetala

Zones: 3–9

Size: Vining 10 to 12 feet

Conditions: Partial shade with protection from hot afternoon sun; consistently moist, fertile, well-drained soil

Native range: Siberia, Mongolia, China

Most of us are familiar with the large-flowered, early-summer-blooming clematis that can be finicky in the garden. This species is much easier to grow, and it opens your eyes to the diversity of the genus. Downy clematis is a midspring bloomer with unusual bell- or star-shaped flowers with strappy petals that can cover the small- to medium-sized vine. If it starts to outgrow its space, it is easily pruned after flowering to control growth. Several beautiful cultivars are available, ranging from deep purple to violet blue to lavender to blush pink. An added perk of this lovely vine is that it is resistant to clematis wilt.

Richie Steffen is executive director of the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in Seattle.

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  1. perenniallycrazy 09/09/2021

    Thanks Richie! Added all these plants to my spring list search.

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