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Spring starflower still surprises Charlotte gardeners

Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. I have two very tall (10-12 feet) azaleas that are now about 40 years old and spectacular when they bloom. Unfortunately, they got some ruthless treatment when some of their back branches were lopped off so that a screened porch could be built behind them. That also altered the shape of the azaleas in a bad way. (Now kind of V-shaped and very heavy on the top.)

    It is time to practice what is called rejuvenation pruning. I would cut these plants back by at least one-fourth to one-third, taking care to recreate the nice shape you once had. This should produce dense growth over the next couple of years. This is a one-branch-at-a-time pruning job. Try to cut the azaleas back well but not to the thick main stems, which will take longer to produce new growth than the smaller branches.

    The standard rule on pruning spring-flowering plants is to do this work soon after they have bloomed, but that means you will cut off some of the fresh, new spring growth.

    If you can stand not having blooms in April, you could do it now. This would put the new growth on the downsized, reshaped plant sooner. Fertilize the plants too, with an azalea product such as Holly-Tone, formulated for acid-loving plants.

Lots of charming little flowers pop up in spring. Some are tricky to grow, others not very long-lived. But one that never seems to fail is spring starflower. The name is descriptive. The flowers, which arrive in March, are shaped like little stars.

One day the space under a tree is blank, the next day this little gem shows up. It never fails to delight, and I have been enjoying it in various places in Charlotte since I arrived here in 1969.

Because I find spring starflower to be so familiar, I am surprised when people ask what it is and where it comes from. Everybody knows tulips. Everybody knows azaleas. But spring starflower has never quite made it to the A-list of most-adored plants.

Well, I would not give up my camellias for spring starflower, but I would not want to go through March without it. Part of the appeal is its magical appearance out of nowhere. The bloom is shaped like a star with five points, white with a hint of silvery blue, and about the size of a quarter. The leaves are thin, narrow and bluish-green. It rises just 8 to 10 inches in bloom, making nice clumps for flower or shrub beds or odd spaces under trees. Some named ones such as Wisley Blue have blooms of a deeper lilac-blue.

This is not a bulb to string out single file over a long stretch. They look better in small batches of five to 10 bulbs, set where you will notice them no matter how bad the weather gets in mid-March. Unlike tulips and daffodils, the grassy foliage is so small it doesn’t look unsightly but quietly fades away.

The botanical name is Ipheion uniflorum, and it grows from a very tiny bulb that resembles a miniature onion bulb. It grows in sun or part shade. In the past some people have called it star-of-Bethlehem, but that is the common name of another flower bulb, Ornithogalum umbellatum, which blooms later in spring.

The simplest way to acquire spring starflower is as a gift from another gardener who is already well-stocked. Small clumps are easy to dig up, divide, move and replant. Try to keep soil attached to the clump as you transplant it. Seeds will also produce new plants, but, in my experience, not abundantly because they usually have to compete with the grass or get swamped by mulch. Some may get killed by weed killers used on lawns. A third method is to buy the little bulbs in the fall for immediate planting. Catalogs of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths often list them with their minor bulbs.

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