Chimonanthus praecox flowers

Fleeting beauties

We take a look at garden plants with short-lived but spectacular flowers such as peonies, poppies and irises.

In recent years, the trend has been to favour plants with a long season of interest. As such, gardeners are always looking for hard working plants that flower for months at a time, and look good through autumn and winter too.

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But does this mean we’ve we been missing out on plants that have a short, but dazzling moment in the garden? Flowering plants such as peonies that have a reputation for being difficult, or poppies, which have blooms that vanish in a gust of wind or heavy downpour. Plants with flowers that we can look forward to, savour and use to mark the change in season, but then vanish for another year?

These fleeting beauties – including trees, shrubs and flowering plants – can be just as valuable in the garden as those with long flowering periods. Certainly, many share a certain glamour that is hard to find in other plants. With the right mix of long-flowering stalwarts, make room for these seasonal stunners.

Discover our pick of the best fleeting beauties, below.

Peonies

The peony bears opulent blooms over a tantalisingly short period. Herbaceous peonies flower in May and June, where individual flowers may last only a week on the plant. If you cut stems to bring indoors, do so when they’re in bud to maximise their potential as a cut flower. Despite their short flowering time, the plants themselves should live for many years. If you need to prune them, do so in winter, when the plant has completely died back.

Peony flower
Peony flower

Poppies

Whether it’s the simple annual red cornfield poppy that we associate with Remembrance Day, or the more blowsy perennial varieties such as the ever popular ‘Patty’s Plum’, poppies are a joy to have in the garden. The flowers are reliable but fleeting, with the paper thin petals easily destroyed by wind or rain. Both annual and perennial poppies are easy to grow and look fantastic when grown in drifts through a mixed border.

Papaver orientale Patty’s Plum
Papaver orientale ‘Patty’s Plum’

Bearded irises

Although the distinctive sword like foliage of the bearded iris has a good architectural presence, it’s the ruffled glamour of the flowers that come in May and June that holds a fascination for so many gardeners. The blooms are elegant and some, like ‘Sable’, are also scented. Irises are prized and admired for the exoticism they bring to a border and are a good choice for dry soils and gravel gardens.

Bearded iris flower
Bearded iris flower

Daylilies

Perhaps the most fleeting of all flowers is hemerocallis, also appropriately known as the daylily. Its blooms literally last a day, although plants do bear plenty of them throughout summer. Daylilies love a sunny location and with flower colours ranging from yellow through orange to deep maroon, the bold clumps look good in a border of mixed perennials.

Daylily flower
Daylily flower

Magnolias

One of the joys of spring is the sight of furry buds on magnolias. They hold all the promise of the season ahead and when they open out into graceful blooms they’re a fanfare for spring. The starry blooms of Magnolia stellata maybe be delicate, but it’s a great choice for a small garden. Guaranteed to bring seasonal joy, it looks wonderful when underplanted with bulbs to make a real spring centrepiece.

Magnolia stellata
Magnolia stellata

Cherry blossom

Ornamental cherry trees such as Prunus ‘Kanzan’ are celebrated in Japan for the very nature of their ephemeral beauty. The abundant cherry pink or white flowers symbolise new beginnings and the fleeting nature of life. The festivities in Japan mark the start of spring and traditional cherry blossom picnics are known as ‘Hanami’. The April blossom is the showstopping moment for cherry trees, which make a beautiful focal point in a garden.

Cherry blossom
Cherry blossom

Chimonanthus

There are winter showstoppers, too – plants need to work hard to attract pollinators in the cold months so flowers are often small but very fragrant. Shrubs such as Chimonanthus praecox or wintersweet are cherished for the amazing scent produced by the delicate flowers in January and February. They have an understated elegance, appearing on bare stems and are good for cutting and bringing into the house when little else is flowering.

Chimonanthus praecox flowers
Chimonanthus praecox flowers

Witch hazel

Another winter jewel, witch hazel, also bears flowers that are exotically beautiful and bewitchingly scented. They have a relatively short-lived stand out moment in the winter garden, with golden and reddish ribboned blooms and their own distinctive fragrance. The rest of the year they fade into the background.

Witchazel flowers
Witch hazel flowers

Nerine

Autumn flowering, nerines bring a touch of elegance at a time when other plants are competing in an all-out final fanfare of hot colours. The delicate pink and red flowers look fantatsic when planted in larger groups in mixed borders, among grasses and other perennials that are just fading. Or they can be potted up as a single display in a container for the patio.

Nerine bowdenii flowers
Nerine bowdenii flowers

Eranthis hyemalis

One of the first flowering plants to appear at the end of winter, the small, buttercup yellow blooms of winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, shine bright at this time of year – but you need to get up close to appreciate their beauty. It looks good naturalised in a woodland border or lawn, or planted in groups in wilder planting schemes.

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Eranthis Hyemalis flowers
Eranthis Hyemalis flowers

Pulsatilla

Commonly known as the Pasque flower, Pulsatilla traditionally represents the arrival of Easter. The purple flowers appear in April, and although the soft ferny foliage that follows is attractive, the plant has had its moment in the spotlight. Good for dry, sunny locations, Pulsatilla vulgaris works in gravel gardens and also as a container plant.

Pulsatilla vulgaris flower
Pulsatilla vulgaris flower

Tips for making the best of short-lived flowers

Choose plants that will suit your soil type and the aspect of your garden – if you have a shady border, don’t choose a peony. It’s better to have the right plant in the right place to get the best performance out of a shortlived bloomer.

Watering can