Lathyrus vernus: A little charmer for the spring woodland garden

Every year there is at least one new plant that I discover and just have to add to my garden. Last spring, as my friend Joan and I were sorting through photos for our spring ephemerals lecture, a photo of her Lathyrus vernus caught my eye. Joan’s recommendation of the plant just fueled my “plant lust” and I was on the lookout to add this unusual perennial to my own early spring garden.

Also called “spring vetchling,” lathyrus vernus is a non-vining perennial sweet pea – a multi-stemmed, clump forming plant with a bushy habit that grows to about 12” high. It bears showy sweet pea-like flowers, which range from a rich reddish purple to bubble-gum pink, and become violet-blue as they mature. The flowers hover above light green leaves. In bloom, lathyrus looks like a charming bouquet of sweet peas in the garden.

Lathyrus blooms for three to four weeks in April– about the same time as mid-season Narcissus and hellebores. Since it prefers light shade, it is a perfect addition to a spring woodland garden and combines beautifully with primroses, pulmonaria, and early spring bulbs.

After blooming, the flowers turn to dark seedheads, and once the seeds drop, they become coffee-colored spirals. The foliage remains on plants planted in shady, moist locations, but may die back in sunnier and drier settings. Once established, lathyrus is fairly drought tolerant. It’s a plant that does not like to be moved, so choose it’s home carefully before you take it out of the pot! Hardy to Zone 4, lathyrus is a low-maintenance perennial that plays well with others, and does not ask for any attention from the gardener.

Once I had lathyrus vernus on my radar, I knew I had to add it to my own garden. But this perennial can be hard to find. Like many other early spring beauties, lathyrus doesn’t look like much in a nursery pot, especially when not in bloom, so it is not sold in many nurseries. Last May, as I was touring gardens in the New York, I started seeing it everywhere –at Stonecrop Gardens, at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and at private gardens of the Hudson valley. And to my delight, I found an unlabeled pot of it at a delightful nursery called Rudolph Gardens in Carmel, owned by a wonderful gentleman whose love of gardening grew into a home-based business for his “golden years”.

Now that spring is finally here, I’m on the lookout for those bright pink blooms in my own woodland garden!

If you cannot visit Rudolph Gardens ( this year, you can find lathyrus vernus at Arrowhead Alpines,