When I was a boy, I generally bought my mom some pansies in a little wooden box for Mother's Day. Mom is long gone, but I'll be thinking of her and all she did for me when Mother's Day rolls around on May 8. If your mom is a gardener, or just appreciates the beauty of the living world, there are plenty of good gifts for her.
I like giving pansies for Mother's day for a number of reasons. First, they are cheerful and full of color. And they are hardy, surviving and thriving outdoors even if we get frost. And they look good even without wrapping paper (I am still challenged when it comes to wrappping).
Each pansy plant is relatively small at the beginning of the season, but they will give a nice punch of color even while they are bulking up. Pansy grower Jenny Wright of Unity, N.H., tells me that pansies "... would rather be in England where it is cold and rainy." So later, in August, they tend to sulk until fall rains come.
Perennials are good gifts, too. Right now some of my hellebores are blooming. Don't know hellebores? You should. These early-spring beauties have evergreen leaves and come in a variety of colors from white to pinkish to shades of purple or even green, both as singles and doubles (with extra petals). Hybridizers have been developing new colors because they are relatively fool-proof plants.
Hellebores are plants that do fine in shade, or partial shade. They prefer moist, well-drained soil but will do fine in dry shade, too. In the beginning of spring the evergreen leaves on hellebores look pretty ratty. I've cut those back to tidy up the bed, and I see that new leaves are already unfurling. I'd say that by May 1 the hellebores will be looking dramatic.
Another early spring flower that will look good on Mother's Day has a rather unappealing common name, lungwort. I prefer to call in by its botanical name, the one used by scientists, Pulmonaria. There are actually three species of Pulmonaria but all are very similar. Cold hardy to minus 40 Fahrenheit, they grow in full to partial shade in ordinary garden soil of moderate fertility, but don't do as well in a very dry location.
Pulmonaria is a good groundcover, one that stays relatively low and spreads by root. The flowers can stand up above the leaves to eight to 12 inches, but the leaves are low. Most varieties sold have spotted leaves, though I have one, probably Pulmonaria angustifolia, that does not. Mine has absolutely iridescent blue flowers that almost seem to light up at dusk or on a cloudy day.
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is a wildflower, but one that is sometimes sold in nurseries. As the name implies, it grows in wet places, even in standing water. It needs a location that is at least moist all year. It is a brilliant yellow flower about two inches in diameter. It is hardy to Zone 4, minus 30. It is not related to annual marigolds sold everywhere.
Your mother probably doesn't have marsh marigolds — most people don't — so if she has some wet areas near her garden, think about finding one for her. There is a fabulous double variety called 'Multiplex' that I planted near my stream last year. I got it at E.C. Brown Nursery in Thetford. The leaves are up, and I can't wait until the blossoms appear.
Another lesser known plant near my stream is the umbrella plant (Darmera peltata). This blooms in May before the giant leaves appear. It is a native — I have seen it wild along the banks of the Rogue River in Oregon - but it is not native here in the east. The pink flowers appear as drumsticks of florets on a tall stem. The leaves will stand up two feet and be two feet in diameter later this summer. Available at E.C. Brown Nursery.
I am reluctant to recommend buying a tree or shrub as a gift unless I know the recipient has asked for it. After all, shrubs take up more space than flowers, and generally last longer. But you know Mom best, and if she likes flowering shrubs and has space for more, think about getting the early blooming azalea 'Cornell Pink' (Rhododendron mucronulatum).
This shrub blooms before most others (except February Daphne). As the name implies, the blossoms are pink. A nice pink, not garish at all. Its only liability is that it blooms so early that some years a hard frost can ruin the buds, I'm told. It's never happened to me, or to anyone I know, but the literature always warns about it. The shrub can get large — eight feet tall and wide, or larger — if not pruned.
If you'd rather not buy plants, think about other things useful to a gardener. A CobraHead weeder (www.cobrahead.com), some nice garden gloves, or perhaps a colorful tubtrug. Trugs, as I call them are handy bucket-substitutes. Unlike the standard five-gallon pail, these are flexible with two soft handles. Easy to pick up with one hand, they come in sizes from very small to quite large (11 gallons). Available at Gardeners Supply (www.gardeners.com), or your local garden center.
Mom, if you're watching me, I planted some pansies this week. I hope you like them.
Henry Homeyer is blogging at https://dailyuv.com/henryhomeyer. Sign up for an e-mail every time he posts. He is the author of four gardening books, and lives in Cornish Flat, N.H.