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perennials and Bulbs that are slow to emerge in spring

Plants Slow to Break Dormancy
Is It Alive?
March, 2003

After being confined indoors all winter, gardeners are understandably eager to greet and admire every new shoot and swelling bud, every hint that spring has really arrived. We're thrilled to discover the early bloomers, the Witch Hazels (Hamamelis), golden Winter Aconite (Eranthis), and gleaming Snowdrops (Galanthus) that flower despite late frosts and snow. We've seen Lungworts (Pulmonaria) produce tiny flowers when the first stem is scarcely an inch tall, so eager are these perennials to bask in the sun.

An entirely different group contains the plant kingdom's equivalent of adolescents who are still in bed hours after the rest of the world is bustling.

Balloon Flowers (Platycodon) are gorgeous in summer, but can be very late to awaken in spring.

These perennials, bulbs, shrubs, and vines are slow to break dormancy. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it's a habit that protects the plants from damage by late frosts. However, it's a habit that does encourage damage by humans, as gardeners begin poking, looking for signs of life.

We know from bitter experience how heartbreaking it is to destroy an unlabeled mature Platycodon with a careless thrust of a spade in early spring, because it looked as though there was an empty spot in the border. Perhaps we can help you avoid similar losses. Here are the plants we've found to be late to greet spring.

Unless tucked into a protected spot, perennials at the northern edge of their hardiness zone tend to emerge later than we might otherwise expect. 

The last plants to emerge in spring include Leadwort (Ceratostigma), Milkweed (Asclepias), False Indigo (Baptisia), Ferns, Balloon Flower (Platycodon), and Hibiscus, including the shrub, Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). Ferns sometimes don't emerge until July. Primula viallii is the last Primula to bloom, and also usually the last to sprout, so it can be a bit disconcerting if you have planted a variety of Primroses and one appears to have gone missing.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria) can be tardy the first year after planting. Lady's Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium), Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum) and False Solomon's Seal (Smilacina) sometimes don't appear above ground at all the first year after planting. However, they're establishing an astonishing network of roots and will be all the bigger and more beautiful the following year. That's not always much consolation the first year, though, we admit.

If it's been a very wet winter, or if they're planted in a spot that's too moist, Astilboides and Darmera can also be painfully slow to awaken.


The first year after planting, spring-blooming bulbs often delay their appearance. Daffodils (Narcissus) in particular often bloom weeks later than their brethren who've been in the garden for a couple of years. After the first season, the biological clock recalibrates to North American time.

Lilies can also be slow the first year. It's all too easy to behead the bulbs when all the growth is still below ground, so mark the place where they're planted, and exercise caution during spring cleanup. Lilium martagon sometimes fail to appear at all the first year, as bulbs devote all their energy to establishing a root system.

Crinodonna and Tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa), tender summer bloomers, are often slow.


Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia) is among the last shrubs to leaf out. Many North American natives, such as Clethra, apparently found some evolutionary advantage to being late to awaken. Late frosts often spoil the display of trees such as Magnolias and Apricots, and Clethra avoids that fate. It's not a native, but Clerodendron (Harlequin Glory Bower) can also be slow. Talking about this subject in the office generated some interesting differences of opinion about Butterfly Bush (Buddleia). Some of us find it slow in some years, and others find it prompt; which just goes to show that location (how much protection the site affords, and which direction it faces) has a profound impact on emergence and bloom time. At the northern end of their range in Zones 5 or 6, Buddleia, Clerodendron, Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle' and Caryopteris X clandonensis ‘Dark Knight' may die back to the ground—prune off the deadwood, and the plants will break from the stubs that remain.

The first year after planting, Clematis may also be slow to emerge in spring.

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