1. Woodland phlox
Name: Phlox divaricata
USDA Hardiness Zones: 4–8
Size: 10 to 15 inches tall, spreading indefinitely
Conditions: Partial to full shade; moist, well-drained soil; can tolerate dry shade
This hardy native perennial forms an evergreen carpet under the canopy of tall shade trees and is perfect for combining with hostas and hardy ferns. Its beautiful flowers in shades of blue sit atop rich green foliage in spring, and unlike many spring ephemerals, woodland phlox stays around all year long. The plant spreads by self-sowing and is easy to grow from seed. The tiny seeds need light for germination, so do not cover them when planting directly in the garden or in nursery flats.
2. Wild columbine
Name: Aquilegia canadensis
Size: 24 to 40 inches tall and 12 to 18 inches wide
Conditions: Morning sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil
Wild columbine makes its presence known each spring, when its rich red-and-yellow flowers dance in the breeze. This native perennial is an excellent nectar source for hummingbirds and butterflies and can be a magnet for bringing these beautiful creatures into your garden. While leaf miners can visit this columbine, it doesn’t seem to be as delectable as the showier hybrids. Wild columbine produces copious amounts of seed and will self-sow in the garden. Gather seedpods before they pop open in fall, and sow the seeds directly in the garden or provide them with a cold stratification period before sowing them in spring. Do not cover the seeds with soil because they need light to germinate.
3. Cardinal flower
Name: Lobelia cardinalis
Size: 30 to 36 inches tall and 1 foot wide
Conditions: Partial to full shade; moist soil
Rarely do we find such an eye-popping, red-flowering perennial growing in the shade, but cardinal flower fits the bill. It brightens up dark spots, and you get the added bonus of attracting hummingbirds, as well. Cardinal flower needs a moist, shady spot to flourish and will self-sow if conditions are right. Collect seeds in fall and sow them immediately, or store them in the refrigerator and sow them in spring. They need light for germination, so do not cover the seeds with soil.
4. ‘Butterfly Blue’ pincushion flower
Name: Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’
Size: 12 to 18 inches tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun; moist, well-drained soil; drought tolerant once established
The name ‘Butterfly Blue’ is more than a subtle hint as to what this tough perennial provides. The beautiful blue flowers of this pincushion flower are produced all summer long (with a little deadheading) and will entice butterflies to your garden. This is an easy, no-fuss plant. The Perennial Plant Association named ‘Butterfly Blue’ pincushion flower the Perennial Plant of the Year in 2000. It has proven itself to be a great garden performer and one worthy of adding to any sunny perennial border. Seeds are easy to grow but need light to germinate. They can be sown outside in the garden in fall or in nursery flats in spring.
J. Harvey Cotten Jr. is vice president and chief horticulturist at the Huntsville Botanical Garden in Huntsville, Alabama.
Photos: top right, Bill Johnson; center left, Jennifer Benner; center, Michelle Gervais; center right, Kerry Ann Moore; bottom, courtesy of J. Harvey Cotten Jr.