The blustery winds blew April in and blew it out. Unfortunately, we had scant rain this year for the proverbial April showers that bring May flowers. Even so, as a testament to the resilience of plants, May flowers insist on coming and now the landscapes are looking green, lush, and full of promise as buds swell, prepared to burst into color and fragrance.
One of my favorite flower surprises here at Morningside was the profusion of bearded iris all over the property. There are many kinds of iris that all bloom this month—Siberian iris, Japanese iris, and iris Germanica or bearded iris which has the distinctive fuzz on its petals that give it its name.
Considered an old-fashioned flower, it is making a comeback in the cut flower world as people find a new appreciation for its stately height, delicate fragrance, amazing color options, and multiple flowers on each stem giving you a long show. The elegance of how the petals fall allows these stems to stand on their own in a bouquet or play with other blooms.
These flowers come back year after year, are deer resistant, and winter hardy. Divide them every few years when the flowers aren’t as profuse. To use them as a cut flower, cut them in what’s called the pencil stage when the flower is still tight, but the color is showing. Leave the lower foliage to regenerate the tuber. Bearded irises have few problems and bring loads of elegance, including the delicate fragrance they bring.
Then there’s the diva of spring—peonies. This is the flower for which I hear most often, “Those are my favorite!” This perennial, deer-resistant, long-lived plant has a cult following, and new cultivars sometimes sell for as much as $500 in rare peachy-pastel tones. (Not found here FYI.) The most common are lactiflora, but there are also tree peonies and itoh peonies that produce show-stopping blooms.
Peonies are flowers that can be inherited from generation to generation. You can have grandma’s peonies because these plants last for decades. To use them as cut flowers, cut them at the soft marshmallow stage when the bud feels squishy when you squeeze it but hasn’t opened yet. We are fortunate to have an amazing peony grower right here in Missouri who sends incredibly healthy, vigorous roots called Hollingsworth Peonies. Peonies are best planted in the fall as bare roots, but can be planted in the spring.
Peonies also make amazing dried flowers. Be sure to hang them before they are too old or they will shatter. If they do shatter though, you can make a little sachet for your drawer. They can also be made into a syrup! The peony fragrance is spring in a bottle.
The round look of peonies is mimicked in the landscape with alliums that burst onto the scene. Not only do these plants add interest to a bed like floating balloon, they also work to keep pests away so they are useful planted with more vulnerable plants like roses. When used as a cut flower, wait until the bud has cracked open for the longest life. Even if it’s fully blown, bring it in. Alliums have a long vase life.
While purple is the most common color, there are also white and pink alliums as well as a fun one that looks like a firework exploded. Alliums are grown from bulbs and planted in the fall with other bulb flowers like tulips and daffodils. Some can be dried and worked into everlasting arrangements.
Baptisia comes to life in May. This herbaceous perennial is a native plant and deer resistant. It dies down to the ground like peonies in the winter and starts sending out spear-like shoots in late April. Every part and stage of this plant is useful as a cut flower. The leaves make wonderful foliage, the flowers are beautiful in arrangements, and the pods that form after the flowers have been pollinated which look like edamame add textural interest.
As a clump-forming plant, baptisia looks nicest when you plant several next to each other and with all the new varieties and color options coming out, the hardest part will be choosing. Did I mention they were deer resistant? I did. Just checking. You know that’s important to me and it’s like a badge of honor when a plant is deer resistant.
Another spire-forming plant that blooms in May is larkspur. I love larkspur because it so readily reseeds itself. It starts growing slowly in the winter and then shoots up as the weather warms up and the day length lengthens. Each spire has dainty little flowers in shades of blue, white, pink, or even lavender grey. The feathery foliage adds softness. Just be sure to leave a few to reseed itself in the garden. The critters don’t seem to bother this one either. Surprisingly, larkspur dries incredibly well. The flowers keep their color and looks gorgeous dried.
Bachelor buttons or cornflower is another one that reseeds easily. Like larkspur, it starts growing in the winter and sends up tall clumps of willowy stems that bloom into cute little pompoms. They come in shades of blue, purple, white, and pink and they are usually sold with a collection of solid and variegated blooms for interest. Cut these when the color just starts to show at the top of the cone for the longest vase life. These add that pop of color and touch of whimsy to arrangements. As the name suggests, they are perfect for boutonnieres, corsages, and buttonholes, but the long stems allow you to work them in arrangements too.
One of my favorite things in any garden is vertical interest. Vines and climbing things take patience, but how magical is it when you see a mature arbor or trellis in full bloom? Clematis is one of my favorite climbing things because these blooms are so audacious in size and color. They are just as magical in a bouquet as a special touch. I have a variety called Still Waters that is a hauntingly beautiful lavender grey bloom. It melts me every time I see it.
Clematis are often planted with climbing roses as they weave a dance together while they climb. While there are double clematis available, my favorite are the single layer flowers. There are also smaller trumpet shaped flowers. Not all clematis are good as cut flowers so research and have fun with them. Clematis are perennial in zone 6a so once it’s established, you can enjoy it yearly.
We have so many blooms to work with, you might be looking for some foliage. Dusty Miller offers its beautifully soft, silvery grey leaves to bring a sheen to bouquets. Sometimes these come back after winter and sometimes they don’t. Protecting plants with some fabric goes a long way and gives them longer stems. Another lesser know favorite is Polygonatum or Solomon's Seal. This is a shade loving perennial that arches gracefully and has little dangly flowers, but the beauty is the foliage. I love the variegated plants.
Have you ever thought of using herbs in bouquets? Mint and oregano are all coming into their prime season in May. These herbs are naturally left alone by critters and pests and generally come back year after year. It’s best early in the season so grab some mint for your tea and for your bouquet.
The poppies start popping open in May. If the bud cracks and you can see the color underneath, cut them and bring them in. Some say to sear the end with a flame or boiling water, but the jury seems to be out on this. They aren’t as long-lasting as other flowers, but they bring such delicacy and beauty in their crinkled petals, we forgive them. Leave a few to reseed in the garden. Iceland poppies are best for cutting like the Champagne line. Poppies are deer resistant.
Prefer something a little more complex? Columbines are shade-loving perennials whose intricate blooms seem to dangle precariously on the stem. They also come in double varieties that look like colorful hops. Adorable and charming.
Sweet William is a workhorse that is planted in the winter for the longest stems and survives to push out strong stems with a cluster of flowers at the top. Related to carnations, these flowers come in vibrant jewel tones and whites that add to any arrangement. Cut these when just a few of the flowers have begun to open. Sweet William will come back a second year, but the stems won't be as long. These are also deer resistant.
Similar in form with that rounded, flatter top is another native plant—yarrow. Totally useful as a medicinal herbal, it also provides wonderful food for pollinators because the flat head is comprised of smaller tiny flowers. In an arrangement, the head provides the disc shape and adds color as yarrow comes in a jaw-dropping array of choices. Yarrow is perennial and deer resistant. You can also dry these stems upside down for everlasting floral arrangements.
Last, but not least, towards the end of the month the roses start to bloom. I love roses. Maybe it’s the thorns. There’s a weird draw because they aren’t necessarily easy to get. I love how the petals unfurl and how they sit on their stems and how they smell. Deer also love roses, so it’s a battle between them and the Japanese beetles and disease, but I had to include them here, because it’s roses.
Garden roses are truly special. When I have them, I try to include them in special arrangements and it adds magic. Cut them in a tight bud stage after the green sepals at the base lower away from the bud. Garden roses aren’t super long lasting, but cutting them early provides you with the longest vase life. As with all growing, find the varieties that work well in the Midwest. I like the Kordes line of roses for cold hardiness and disease resistance, but they certainly aren’t the only option. A little research here goes a long way. Dave Austin’s roses are magnificent, but remember, KC and England have very different climates. I love walking through Loose Park in KC and seeing what grows well here. Check it out in late May/early June.
I hope these whet your appetite for late spring flowers. I try to share varieties that are fairly easy to grow in our Midwest climate and will give you lots of enjoyment. Also, it seems like May is the last month where being outside is bearable. June seems to come in hot and heavy like it’s already August, so once the pollen is finally blown off the trees, I hope you can go out and enjoy the last of the spring weather and spring flowers.