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Corydalis: Nature’s way of apologizing for winter

by Timber Press on February 25, 2011

in Gardening

Sometimes nature can be unexpectedly generous to gardeners who have to endure disgusting weather. Say, for example, you live in a part of the world that gets unremitting snowfall from September to May followed by a brief, chilly, damp summer. Hey! You can grow Himalayan blue poppies! Those folks in sunny San Diego? Nope, sorry!

Likewise, those of you who have experienced record snowfall this winter may be wondering whether anything could compensate for the misery you’ve been through. How about a group of early-spring-blooming bulbs that’s gorgeous, diverse, super-hardy, shade-tolerant, easy to grow, and that hardly anybody knows about?

That would be the genus Corydalis, commonly (and unfortunately) known as fumitories. Most gardeners know these plants through herbaceous species like the prolific, yellow-flowered C. lutea or the electric-blue C. flexuosa (which, although stunning, has proved disappointingly short-lived in most gardens). But there’s a large group of bulb-forming (well, tuber-forming, actually) woodland species that are a cinch to grow and that put on a springtime show that will give you palpitations. And you know what? They actually need cold, hard winters in order to thrive. If you plant them in the balmy reaches of Zones 7, 8, and 9, they just dwindle away. But January in Minneapolis? No problem! They love it!

Corydalis solida

All they need is reasonably humusy, well-drained soil in shade that’s not too dense. In other words, underneath a nice, open-crowned oak or maple, not next to that funereal Norway spruce that you ought to cut down anyway. They bloom early — usually in April — for a few fantastic weeks and then they disappear until next year. So you can easily tuck them in among hostas and other shade-loving perennials that emerge slightly later in the season.

The down side — and you know there had to be one, right? — is that they’re not easy to find, and when you do find them, they’re expensive. They will multiply, however, so that, over the years, your investment will increase. And really, what will make you happier? Putting the kids through college or having a spectacular bed of rainbow-hued corydalis?

Here are a few nurseries that offer a good selection:

And here’s a selection of some of the showier species:

  • Corydalis bracteata: Creamy yellow. Stunning.
  • Corydalis fumariifolia: Mid-blue.
  • Corydalis malkensis: Sparkling white.
  • Corydalis solida: Selections available in red, pink, white, lavender, and pale blue. Some bicolors. Avoid the ordinary form of the species, which is a dingy mauve.
  • Corydalis turtschaninovii: Brilliant peacock blue. Heart-stoppingly gorgeous.
  • And finally, here are a couple of Timber Press books that have great information about corydalis:
  • Bleeding Hearts, Corydalis, and Their Relatives, by Mark Tebbitt, Magnus Lidén, and Henrik Zetterlund
  • Buried Treasures: Finding and Growing the World’s Choicest Bulbs, by Jānis Rukšāns

So, just forget about that car payment or electric bill and order some corydalis. They’re the best plants you’ve never grown.

Corydalis ambigua

 

 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Ryan Miller February 25, 2011 at 9:44 am

I’m a big fan of this genus (and Dicentra), especially after reading the book by Mark Tebbitt. I should say prospective fan because although I have a few plants, they were all acquired late last season and I haven’t had any flowers yet. I’ve also have a couple growing from seed. *fingers crossed* Thanks for bringing some attention to this genus, the more people want it, the more likely our nurseries will carry it.

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