Let’s Bring Back A Forgotten Spring Beauty

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A carpet of Anemone nemorosa ‘Vestal’ in the Villa Bagatell gardens in Quebec City.

When I first moved to Quebec City 40 years ago, I was astounded by the vast carpets of white flowers that appeared each spring in its older estate gardens. After a bit of searching, I found out the plant’s name: Anemone nemorosa ‘Vestal’, a double version of the wood anemone. As time went on, most of the old estates were carved up into suburban lots, the soil was carted away and the flowers were lost. Still, there are a few estates that were preserved at least in part and where the “carpet of snow” effect is still very present, like Villa Bagatelle in the Quebec City suburb of Sillery (now a public garden). Reford Gardens, on the Lower St. Lawrence, also has some stunning wood anemones… although they bloom about two weeks later.

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Anemone nemorosa ‘Vestal’

I will confess I actually stole a few rhizomes from Villa Bagatelle… and I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty. After all, at the time, it had been abandoned for over 30 years, the fence had collapsed and there were no signs telling anyone to keep out. I didn’t even know that the tottering neoclassic building had a name! Every move I’ve made since then, I’ve planted a few rhizomes in my new garden, leaving behind me a trail of snowy white footprints to mark my passage.

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Anemone nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’

But the wood anemone doesn’t just come in white (although good ol’ double white ‘Vestal’ is the only variety I’ve found in old gardens). There are pink, violet, blue or green forms, with single, semi-double, and double flowers, plus there are close relatives with yellow flowers (A. ranunculoides, in buttercup yellow with single or double flowers and A. x lipsiensis, a cross between A. nemorosa and A. ranunculoides, with lemon yellow flowers). I grow about 20 varieties around my place and they are just spectacular.

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Anemone ranunculoides

The wood anemone  is native to central and northern Europe. It’s a small plant only 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm) high. Each bears a single stem, three deeply cut, dark green leaves and one upright-facing flower with yellow stamens. At least, they face upward on sunny days. In gray weather, they bend downward and remain closed.

The plant first forms a dense clump, but it gradually widens, thanks to its skinny wandering rhizomes, eventually forming vast colonies. The foliage is very attractive and persists for a while after flowering, producing a wonderful temporary ground cover. Temporary, because it disappears completely in summer.

The Perfect Woodland Flower

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Anemone nemorosa ‘Rosea’

As the common name suggests, the wood anemone is a forest plant. It typically grows under deciduous trees where it can get some sunshine in the spring. It remains totally nonplussed by “dry shade” (spaces full of tree roots that dry out in summer). If you grow it under conifers, make sure it’s in a spot that gets some spring sun.

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Anemone nemorosa ‘Blue Eyes’

It prefers soils rich in organic matter and fairly moist in spring, but will in fact grow in almost any soil. It is also indifferent to summer droughts because it is fully dormant at that season. And it is much hardier that it is usually given credit for. Most sources say it is hardy to USDA zone 5… but I live in USDA zone 3 (AgCan zone 4) and can assure you these plants are fully hardy here. After all, it they’ve been growing all on their own in abandoned gardens for a century or more (Quebec City’s estates date back to the mind 19th century), they’re hardy! Given that its native range extends into the boreal forests of Scandinavia, the wood anemone might well be even hardier that that.

When does the wood anemone bloom? Let’s just say “mid to late spring” and leave it at that. It will bloom whenever mid to late spring is locally. Here that is late May to mid June (it blooms for about 3 weeks, much longer than most bulbs), but for most people, it will flower much earlier than that: in April or even March.

Not Available in Your Local Garden Center

Garden centers rarely if ever offer wood anemones. Its awkward habit of going summer dormant means its pot will look empty for much of the season (how much would you spend on an apparently empty pot?), yet if they try to sell it dry as a bulb, the fine rhizomes look more like sections of dead stick than a proper bulb. I can recall the first time I ordered wood anemones by mail and my shock at how unimpressive they were. Scrawny little brown things: I was sure they were dead! Still, I planted the stubs and up they came the next spring… and every spring thereafter (wood anemones are absolutely permanent).

The result is that this great spring bulb is almost never offered locally and even most bulb catalogues won’t handle it. You need to go to specialist nurseries. I get mine from Fraser’s Thimble Farms, a Canadian company that ships to the US. British gardeners are much luckier: many of their nurseries offer the various cultivars. Order wood anemones in spring or summer for fall delivery… and get started on your collection of wood anemones without delay!

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