The best of spring's bell-shaped beauties

When you see these, you'll know it's spring!

It's chic to be a shrinking violet. Johnny Depp, Paris Hilton, Kim Basinger, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Al Pacino and Jean-Paul Gaultier are among the many celebrities who claim to be naturally shy. Even The Rolling Stones' Bill Wyman, who reputedly bedded more than 1000 women during his 30-year stint as the band's bass guitarist, reckons he's not one to seek the limelight. "I'm always shy in front of an audience, so I'm always at the back, in the shadows, just doing it. I don't like the front, the adulation," he's quoted as saying.

Like rock bands, creative gardens need a mix of personalities, from shouty attention-seekers who give everyone the glad eye – think dahlias, lilies, rhododendrons and sunflowers – to a support crew of demure types who refuse to even make eye contact. 

Introverted plants (and people) rarely get the recognition they deserve but, in spring, there are loads of shy cottage flowers that hang their heads, forcing us to lie down on the ground to get a decent squizz at them.

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The golden flowers of spring.

Take epimediums. Also known as barrenwort, bishop's hat, fairy wings and (I kid you not) horny goat weed, these winter-dormant perennials are happy to hang out in shady corners. Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum' causes so little fuss that it's easy to forget you've planted it, especially as its copper-mottled foliage blends in with other woodland groundcovers. But in spring, it's a winner, sending up sprays of gold flowers reminiscent of teeny-tiny 'Tête-a-tête' daffodils that have been shrunk in a hot wash.

Spring seems to be the season when my garden's most bashful beauties suddenly stand out from the crowd, despite otherwise having what English garden celebrity Carol Klein would call "a quiet demeanour". That's how she describes dreamy meadow rue (Thalictrum delavayi), although its lilac sprays don't steal my heart until later in summer. "Even gardeners whose predilection is for drama cannot help but succumb to its quiet charm," says Carol. With buds that unfold like perfect pellucid parasols (Klein, again), Thalictrum delavayi looks impossibly fragile but, like so many wispy plants, it's not. 

I grow it at the very back of my rose border so its slender stems can lean against the post and wire farm fence when the southerly's blowing.

FRIEDRICH STRAUSS/GAP PHOTOS SALLY TAGG TIMUR DJAFAROV/123RF PERNILLA BERGDAHL/GAP PHOTOS JULIAN MATTHEWS SALLY TAGG SALLY TAGG SALLY TAGG SALLY TAGG SALLY TAGG GAP PHOTOS SALLY TAGG GIORGIO BIZZOTTO/123RF EVA CHAFARNSKI/123RF SALLY TAGG

Our gardens burst back into life this month, with plenty of frothy cottage flowers to pick. This bouquet includes aquilegias, lupins, catmint, forget-me-nots and grasses.

Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) may not be as elegant or scented as true English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but with their sideways-arching stems of pendulous deep blue flowers, these pale-blue Spaniards are better for picking, having strong upright stems. They self-seed and spread merrily too.

Pretty and perfumed lily of the valley.

The Persian black lily, Fritillaria persica.

It is the leaves (when crushed), not the flowers, that give Helleborus foetidus its unfortunate common name of stinking hellebore.

Meadow rue, Thalictrum delavayi.

Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens'.

Salvia patens 'Cambridge Blue'.

Snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii).

Pieris japonica 'Purity'.

Lamprocapnos spectabilis, formerly known as Dicentra spectabilis.

Bridal wreath, Deutzia crenata.

Pasque flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris.

Cyclamen.

Aquilegias are naturally nodding, though newer varieties tend to have upward-facing flowers.

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There's also a multipetalled form of Thalictrum delavayi called 'Hewitt's Double', which has the tiniest pink pompoms – they look like powder puffs for a dolls' house dressing table – but I prefer the diaphanous original. Too much pomp, or too many petals, detracts from a dainty flower's charm rather than enhancing it. 

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Would silken-haired pulsatillas, those alpine perennials from the buttercup family, look any prettier with a bustle of extra petals beneath their skirts? No. The alpine Pasque flower's appeal lies in its shy simplicity; the fringed doubles of Pulsatilla vulgaris look ridiculous. Frost-hardy pulsatillas are magical rockery plants for cooler climates. They need free-draining, gritty soil and they loathe humidity, so I've reluctantly conceded defeat here. 

I'm less willing to give up on Lamprocapnos spectabilis, better known by its old botanical name, Dicentra spectabilis, or its nickname bleeding heart. How apt. It keeps breaking mine. If this airy perennial doesn't rot out in winter, it shrivels up in the summer heat. Nonetheless, every year I buy two new victims – one pure white, one pink – because I love it so much in the shade. 

Snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii).
SALLY TAGG

Snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii).

An equally delightful dangler, but this time for an open sunny spot in summer, is the angel's fishing rod or wand flower, Dierama pulcherrimum. This graceful South African will reel you in – or catch you hook, line and sinker – with its bowing stems of pinky-purple bells. It's an evergreen clumper with messy grass-like foliage that suits being positioned at the edge of a path or along the top of a low terrace or retaining wall, so it can fling its wands outward into open air. Again, be prepared for it to cark it, as it prefers to stay put and resents being repotted or shifted. (If you lose yours, more successful gardeners often offer spare corms for sale on Trade Me.)

I've had better luck naturalising cyclamen under silver birches. The trick seems to be to liberate gifted pot plants when they finish blooming, tucking them in fairly close to tree trunks where they're less likely to be choked out by more vigorous shade dwellers such as Japanese anemones and hellebores. Then leave them be. They might sulk for a year, especially in their first dry summer, but after that they'll pop up and down at will.

How I wish lily of the valley (the bulbous sort; we'll get to the shrub next) would prosper of its own accord here. When William Wordsworth wrote that "the flower that smells the sweetest is shy and lowly", he could have been talking about Convallaria majalis, which rivals sweet peas and freesias for symbolic spring fragrance. Not a true bulb but a rhizomatous perennial, Convallaria majalis spreads courtesy of a network of snaking stems just below the soil surface. It relishes moist shade (for at least half the day) and, if it gets too congested, will start to flower less freely, though regular dividing does more harm than good.

Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens'.
SALLY TAGG

Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens'.

One of my American gardening books describes it as "an aggressive coloniser". If only. The tricky thing seems to be getting it going properly in the first place. In my herb garden, I slotted in a mixed clump of bluebells and lily of the valley from my aunt's Waikato garden, but now all I have is a mound of bluebells. Perhaps there is a tipping point, as yet unrealised at my place, where lily of the valley stops being temperamental and lives up to its reputation as fragrant invader.

I've had marginally better luck with the dusky pink variety, Convallaria majalis var. rosea. A few years ago, I bedded in a wee patch under the last hydrangea in a row beside our house. It's at the far end of a low rock wall, where it can't be smothered out, but I always forget to look for it in spring. For the past two years, it has flowered nicely – I know this, because I've seen the withering stalks – but both times I missed it in bloom.

The lily of the valley shrub, Pieris japonica, is no relation. I've never been a huge fan of its mix of dinky  bells and shiny bronze spring growth but, having spotted a big old bush in family photographs of my maternal grandmother Clarice's farm garden, I got all nostalgic and bought half a dozen recently released varieties. 

Though not as elegant or scented as true English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but with their sideways-arching ...
SALLY TAGG

Though not as elegant or scented as true English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but with their sideways-arching stems of pendulous deep blue flowers, these pale-blue Spaniards are better for picking, having strong upright stems.

Red-tipped 'Valley Valentine' and dark pink 'Flamingo' are either garish or gorgeous, depending on your taste, but 'Purity' and 'Temple Bells' have sophisticated white flowers. And if you can bear to cut them off before they open, the clusters of tight buds add extra texture to spring bouquets.

(Add deutzias to your cutting list too, even if these feminine shrubs, aren't so much shy as simply unable to stand straight under the weight of all those virginal white flowers.) 

Two months ago in NZ Gardener I wrote 1000 words in honour of hellebores, so I won't bore you by going on about them too much now, except to say that their exotic flowers turn heads from winter into spring. One of the latest to strut its stuff is Helleborus foetidus, which has clusters of acid-green bells above finely-cut, near-black foliage. Hellebores are having their shyness rapidly bred out of them, with new varieties almost universally boasting upward-facing, open flowers instead of nodding blooms that cast their gaze at the ground. 

Aquilegias are naturally nodding, though newer varieties tend to have upward-facing flowers.
SALLY TAGG

Aquilegias are naturally nodding, though newer varieties tend to have upward-facing flowers.

Old-fashioned aquilegias have undergone a similar transformation to straighten their necks but I'm not convinced it's progress. Some things are best left well alone. 

I've previously confessed to raiding my grandmother's abandoned Raglan garden for snowflakes or leucojum bulbs; they were valiantly flowering in what is now a sheep paddock. They also grew around our cowshed when I was a child, so perhaps it's easy to dismiss them as common as muck.

Snowdrops are so much classier, if you don't mind craning your head at an awkward angle to appreciate their miniature lampshade-shaped flowers. My best show of snowdrops, in this case Galanthus elwesii, can be seen in the unlikeliest of locations. If you lift up the lanky branches of a scrappy Mexican orange blossom shrub in my white garden, and shove aside the lower fronds of the silver fern that looms above it, there they are. How they survive, let alone flourish, in such a dank setting is beyond me. 

Cyclamen.
EVA CHAFARNSKI/123RF

Cyclamen.

When you succeed with expensive or exotic bulbs, it feels like a moment of triumph – even when that moment is fleeting. I've fantasised about fritillarias for almost two decades, ever since I first saw them blooming in a spring display at the Butchart Gardens in Canada. 

Fritillaria persica looks like a gothic delphinium, with 80cm tall spikes of cernuous bells that look chocolate brown, black or indigo, depending on the light. This Middle Eastern lily is a costly collector's item – expect to pay about least $12 per bulb – but it's worth every cent so snap it up if you ever see it offered for sale.

I also adore Fritillaria camchatsensis, which is shorter-stemmed (30-40cm) with a topknot of near black flowers, and pointy-petalled yellowish-green and brown Fritillaria acmopetala, which I kept going in a wine barrel for three springs. This Turkish delight isn't easy to grow in the north, so I considered that a win! 

In my mother's garden, the best spring display comes from arching clumps of Solomon's seal, whose ballet slipper-shaped flowers remind me of baby booties pegged along a washing line. I struggled to establish Polygonatum multiflorum in my former city garden but it has thrived here, and whenever I need more to fill a moist, shady gap I simply phone Mum and ask her to uproot a chunk. 

It's silly, really, how much more love we heap on extroverted flowers that behave like primadonnas compared to their more easygoing companions. For example, I'm forever hauling out self-sown honeywort (Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens'), just so I can plant more finicky things in its place. And I'm a fan of salvias but have lost count of the number of Salvia patens 'Cambridge Blue' plants that have rotted out in my wet soil, yet even though its cousin, bog sage (Salvia uliginosa), is the same shade of pretty pale blue – and actually likes wet feet – I turn my nose up at it. I shouldn't be such a snob. 

 - NZ Gardener

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