Well, can you believe it? For the first time in many years Punxsutawney Phil, nudged from his burrow on Ground Hog Day, did not see his shadow. Spring will come early this year! This prediction elicited cheers from Phil’s fans knowing he has never been wrong in 133 years of prognostication. Across the land gardeners too rejoiced, dug out those discarded seed and perennial catalogues, and began to dream in technicolor. But this is an unusual occurrence. Phil sees his shadow more years than not which always evokes a collective moan from gardeners resigned to six more weeks of winter. But rather than wallowing in despair when the ground hog disappoints brighten your dreary landscape with shrubs and trees that bloom in late winter or early spring. Now is the time to plan and spring is the time to plant early bloomers for a shot of color in your gloomy garden long before the daffodils break ground.
For starters no early blooming plant is more treasured than Hamamelis vernalis, the fragrant Ozark Witch Hazel, whose buds break out in January well before the leaves emerge. This multi-stemmed small tree is festooned with tiny ribbon-like flowers in the darkest days of winter, and although it tolerates part shade, it puts on its best show in full sun.
Hardy in USDA Zones 4-8, it prefers moist acidic soil, at least for its first year after which it can stand to dry out somewhat. If suckers sprout around the roots, get rid of them; not only are they unsightly, they sap the tree’s strength, and, should you need to shape the tree, do it right after flowering. Like all the early blooming shrubs in this discussion, pruning should take place immediately after flowering; the flower buds are set on old wood or last year’s growth.
Another shrub that flowers often before it leafs out, the Exbury azalea group owes its commercial life to Lionel de Rothschild, a descendent of the famous banking patriarch. A horticulturist specializing in Rhododendrons, he crossed Asian with American azaleas in the early 1900’s and produced a deciduous variety that he named for his country estate in England. Members of the Rhodie genus, Exbury Azaleas are emblazoned with brilliant orange, red or yellow flowers in late winter, and like other members of their family they prefer moist, acidic soil and full to part sun. However, unlike their evergreen brethren they can’t take the heat and humidity of the Deep South; USDA Zone 8 is their limit. Regrets to Southern gardeners.
Also blooming in late winter Flowering Quince is a messy thorny tangle of a shrub that redeems itself in late March by bursting forth with scarlet red flowers that completely smother the plant. Although Chaenomeles speciosa flowers best in full sun, it can tolerate part shade and any soil conditions as long as it drains well.
The flowers are followed by small yellow fruits which if you’re so inclined you can preserve, but if you’re not interested in making jelly choose one of the Double Take® varieties that have been bred to bear no fruit and no thorns (hardy in USDA Zones 4-8).
For those native plant enthusiasts, you need look no further than the North American Cercis canadensis, a small multi-stemmed tree whose bare branches are massed with rosy-purple flowers in early spring.
In late spring after the flowers have faded the Eastern Redbud is covered with blue-green heart-shaped leaves that turn buttery yellow in the fall. This member of the pea family wants full sun to part shade and regular water in USDA Zones 4-8, and choose its location carefully; it has a large taproot and hates being moved. For a real spring showstopper choose Forest Pansy, an especially floriferous variety.
Another plant native to the eastern and central United States, the Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is covered with clusters of greenish yellow flowers in March, flowers that emit a slight citrus fragrance.
Once the blossoms are finished, thick light green leaves emerge attracting the spicebush swallowtail butterfly whose larva feed on the foliage. Although the damage can be extensive, gardeners report that the heavy munching does not seem to cause permanent damage to the plant. Give your Spicebush full sun or part shade in USDA Zones 4-9, and delight in knowing that your choice helps to support the lovely spicebush swallowtail butterfly.
Attention now shifts from the earliest blooming shrubs, those that don’t even wait for their leaves to emerge before they erupt with flowers, to those that bloom a little later in the season. The first choice must be a Rhododendron, and one of the earliest to flower is Rhododendron ‘Praecox’ winner of the Royal Historical Society’s prestigious Award of Garden Merit.
Just as the daffodils are poking up through the ground, this compact semi-evergreen rhododendron is covered with delicate pink flowers set against a backdrop of dark glossy leaves. Protect it from winter winds (hardy in USDA Zones 6-8) and plant it in sun to part shade. Keep the soil moist and give it a shot of a fertilizer specially formulated for rhododendrons; a light feeding in early spring keeps a Rhodie happy.
For early flowers and stunning fall foliage make room in your garden for Viburnum x burkwoodii ‘Conoy’ a variety introduced in 1988 by the US National Arboretum. Creamy fragrant flowers break out in late April after the emergence of its shiny pleated leaves, a trademark of the Viburnum family, and are followed by bright red fruit in August.
If you must shape your shrub do so right after flowering, but be aware, pruning forfeits the berries and the birds they attract. Evergreen in the warmer climates, in colder zones the leaves turn a deep burgundy in the fall before dropping off. This viburnum is hardy in USDA Zones 5-8. A compact shrub, growing no taller than a child, it does well in part shade, but even better in full sun, and wants moist but well-drained soil.
If you have a woodland garden or a dark corner you want to brighten, an early blooming shrub that can tolerate heavy shade, Pieris japonica (or Andromeda japonica) is the plant for you. Remaining green all year in late April it is decked out with drooping clusters of tiny bell-shaped flowers, and if you choose the variety ‘Mountain Fire’, the new leaves emerge bright red before morphing to green.
Water it evenly in Zones 5-8 and watch for lace bug, the nemesis of andromedas. If your plant is attacked, spray both the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves with an insecticidal soap. If there’s none available or you want to save some money make your own concoction – mix 5 T Ivory liquid soap, 2 T cooking oil in 1 gallon of water.
For a change of pace and flower, consider the state flower of Alabama, Camellia japonica or Rose of Winter, a cheery flower that’s hard to resist.
Although its hardiness is limited (USDA Zones 7-9) the Ice Angel® series of cultivars can withstand temperatures as low as -10 degrees (Zone 6). Plant it in part shade protected from winter winds and give it good drainage and acidic soil (there are fertilizers formulated specifically for camellias). Named for Georg Joseph Kamel, a Jesuit missionary known for his work with oriental plants when he wasn’t ministering to the heathen, this handsome shrub remains evergreen, retaining its good looks year round.
The final selection for a shrub that produces early spring flowers is the low growing Sarcacocca hookeriana var. humilis quite a handle for Sweet Box. Chances are your nose will draw you to this member of the Boxwood family, before you spot the tiny creamy white flowers so strong is the fragrance of this evergreen beauty.
Preferring part to deep shade and moist acidic soil in USDA Zones 6-8, the flowers are followed by black fleshy fruits in summer that will hang around through the winter if the birds don’t get them first.
So there you have it. No need to rely on Punxsutawney Phil to signal when the garden will begin to show signs of life. Plan now and you can have a colorful landscape while Phil continues to snooze in his burrow next winter.
Digging Dog Nursery
Brighter Blooms Nursery