Especially in colder parts of the country, it can be a long wait for spring. When the snow begins to melt, and the days lengthen, we can become impatient to see some signs of life in our gardens – but many plants just keep sitting there. They are not stupid, because spring can suddenly turn back to winter, and early bloomers can have their blossoms destroyed.
But some plants just want to bloom anyway, and if you want blooms early on, then make sure you plant early-blooming shrubs in your garden. The choices will depend on where you live, but here are some early-bloomers that will bring blossoms to your garden, sometimes while there are still pockets of snow in the shady corners. Position these early bloomers so they are visible from windows, since the weather may still be too cold to enjoy being in the garden yourself. Seen from indoors they tell us that spring is almost here.
Forsythia – the Easter Tree
An old garden standby for the earliest blooms is the Forsythia, sometimes called ‘Easter Tree’ because it is often in bloom by that time, and because it has yellow flowers, a traditional Easter color. Those flowers appear as if by magic the first few warmer days of spring, blooming even with snow over their roots. The flowers open on bare branches, adding to the impact, and in the cooler days they last at least two weeks. This is also one of the easiest shrubs to grow, in sun or partial shade, and in any kind of soil at all. Urban garden? No problem. Tough city life doesn’t bother this plant, and neither do pests or diseases.
In areas as cold as zone 4, choose the old but reliable variety called ‘Lynwood Gold’. This plant can reach 8 feet tall if left untrimmed, and it makes a great informal screen or hedge, bursting with color, and then covered in green leaves all summer. If that is too tall, choose the variety called ‘Show Off’. It grows from 3 to a maximum or 6 feet tall, and it is easily trimmed to keep it closer to 3 feet tall and across. That makes it ideal for a smaller garden. For trouble-free early spring blooms, you can’t go wrong with Forsythia.
Edgworthia Paper Bush
Sticking with yellow for a moment, but moving to the warmer parts of the country, in sheltered part of zone 7 or warmer, Edgworthia, also known as Japanese Paper Bush, is a real spring winner. Heck, it doesn’t even wait for spring to officially start, but is already in bloom in the last months of winter. Its round balls of white and yellow blossoms remind some people of a tree full of lightbulbs, but however you see it, this beautiful shrub is a winner in warm gardens. Despite its exotic appearance it is easy to grow in any soil, and in light conditions from full sun to full shade. It is a slower-growing plant, but reaches 6 or even 8 feet tall, and is about 5 feet across. Even before the flowers open the silver flower buds are charming, and to top it all off, the blooms send out the most delicious perfume, that really says spring is here already.
The blooms appear on bare branches, and when the leaves arrive they are interesting too. Quite large, about 6 inches long, but only 2 inches wide, they are an exotic blue-green color, and give an almost tropical look to the garden in summer. In fall they turn a colorful yellow before falling, showing the silvery flower buds for next year already.
Red Tip Photinia
You don’t need flowers for spring color, as this tough evergreen shrub shows us. In early spring the new leaves appear, but these are not your usual pale-green spring leaves. No, they are glossy, vibrant, rich red, turning the whole bush into a beacon of color in your garden, just as soon as the slightly warmer days appear. Hardy in zone 7 and upwards, this tough-as-nails bush will grow 9 to 12 feet tall, and just as much across, making it an ideal plant for the corners of your garden. It will stand out in spring, and then make the perfect backdrop green bush when the rest of the garden wakes up. Its glossy, evergreen leaves are attractive all year round, not just when they emerge blazing red. Clusters of white blossoms come just as the leaves are darkening to green, and these sometimes form red berries in fall.
You can also easily trim the Red Tip Photinia into a hedge, and since it will grow happily in sun or partial shade, it is useful almost anywhere in the garden. It is not demanding for some special kind of soil, and neither will it be bothered by pests or diseases. For spring brightness on a trouble-free plant, this is one you can’t pass up.
In colder areas, including zone 4, magnolia trees are a highlight of early spring. These are the deciduous magnolias, not the evergreen ones that need warmer climates. These hardy magnolias grow into handsome gray-barked small trees in time, and all winter long you will see big, fat buds on those bare twigs. At the first hint of warmth, out come the large, star-shaped or tulip-shaped flowers, that look so exotic it is hard to believe these are hardy trees. The most cold-resistant is the Royal Star Magnolia, with white flowers on a shrubby tree. For color, choose from the Girl Series, developed at the National Arboretum for blooming that avoids the late frosts. Varieties like ‘Jane’ or ‘Betty’ come in delicious shades of pink, darker on the outside of the flowers than on the inside. The annual treat of magnolia blossoms is hard to beat for early spring blooming, so make sure you have one somewhere in your garden.
One of the most striking of the early blooming shrubs is the Redbud, or Judas Tree. More like a large shrub than tall tree, these plants have dramatic purple-pink blooms smothering the bare branches. The always look spectacular among the other still-sleeping trees. In colder areas choose the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) which is hardy through zone 4. In warmer areas, zone 6 or above, go with the Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis). These trees are similar in overall appearance, and have lovely rounded, heart-shaped leaves that make them still attractive when blooming is over. These are trees that grow naturally in North America, so if you want to avoid alien species in your garden, they are terrific choices.
Redbud trees prefer well-drained soil, and the Western Redbud is very drought resistant too, so its an ideal choice in low-rainfall areas. They have no important pests or diseases and are one of the most dramatic of the early blooming trees for any garden. Plant one this spring.