Early Spring Flowering Shrubs

List of the Best Bushes

A forsythia hedge (image) is set off by evergreens. It's a striking driveway planting.
The yellow of this forsythia hedge is made all the more striking by the juxtaposition of the evergreens. David Beaulieu

Early spring flowering shrubs tower over later-blooming bushes in the Northern gardener's estimation for one simple reason: they burst upon the scene when we need them most. Shaking ourselves loose at long last from Old Man Winter's icy grip, we are eager for the floral color for which they are renowned. Moreover, as I explain below, some of these bushes have more to offer than pretty flowers, boasting blooms that are fragrant and/or leaves that turn pretty colors in fall, for example.

  • 01 of 11
    My picture shows how gorgeous heather is when in flower.
    The heath that I grow blooms for an extraordinarily long time. David Beaulieu

    I commence with a shrub that gets a head start on the rest. That is, it does not begin flowering in spring, rather, it simply continues blooming right on into spring. Winter heath begins blooming in zone-5 landscape in late fall, after everything else has stopped blooming. Those flowers persist through winter and are still hanging in there when spring rolls around. They thus bridge the gap between the end of one growing season and the beginning of another -- a very special plant, indeed.

  • 02 of 11
    This witch hazel (image) is one of the earliest shrubs to bloom in spring. There are other types.
    This type of witch hazel is one of the first shrubs to bloom in spring. David Beaulieu

    Because of the head start it gets (which is cheating), I'm not really counting winter heath as one of my picks on this list of early spring flowering shrubs, although its contribution to the early spring yard is worth noting. That then raises the question, Which of these flowering shrubs does begin blooming the earliest?

    At one point in my life, I thought the answer was forsythia (the entry just below). But then I discovered the most precocious of them all: witch hazel. As for all the entries...MORE on my list, you can read more about witch hazel by clicking its image.

  • 03 of 11
    Picture of forsythia hedge.
    Picture of forsythia hedge. David Beaulieu

    Forsythia is very common and very showy, thereby making its presence felt in a very big way. That's why, for me, forsythia is still the poster child for spring among the shrubs, even though witch hazel has the distinction of being the earliest bloomer. When driving through the countryside in April, there's simply no surer indication that spring is here to stay than seeing the forsythia shrubs lighting up everybody's landscaping with their abundant, golden flowers.

  • 04 of 11
    Andromeda photo: shrub against snowy backdrop. The snow is clinging to the evergreens.
    Andromeda photo. David Beaulieu

    Like winter heath (above), mountain laurel (below) and azalea (below), Andromeda (Pieris) is in the Ericaceae family. It is known for flowering in very early spring, coming to our rescue after the long winter. Thus we might say this is a case of reversed roles: in the Greek myth, Perseus rescued the princess, Andromeda, but nowadays it's Andromeda that comes to the rescue. She swoops in to provide relief for the winter weary and lift our spirits.

    Pieris is also known for the fragrance of its...MORE blooms. Some people like the aroma, others find it overpowering.

    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11
    Old flowering quince shrub that has been pruned a lot. Beautiful early-spring bloomer.
    This old flowering quince shrub has obviously received a lot of pruning attention over the years. Enough to please Michael Dirr?. David Beaulieu

    Flowering quince is fabulous in its own right when it blooms, but I especially like it juxtaposed to forsythia -- truly a dynamic color combination. The rub against this early spring flowering shrub is that it doesn't do much for your landscaping when it is not blooming. That's OK with me. Some bushes are worth growing just for their floral display, however brief. There are plenty of others that are mufti-dimensional -- including the next three entries on my list.

  • 06 of 11
    Picture of a bloom from the shrub, Japanese kerria.
    Picture of a bloom from the shrub, Japanese kerria. David Beaulieu

    "Japanese rose" is a somewhat fanciful common name for Kerria japonica. It's not a rose in the usual sense (i.e., it does not belong to the genus, Rosa), although it is, in fact, a member of the very large rose family. This bush puts on a magnificent display when in bloom, but its contribution hardly ends there. During the winter, when we Northerners look for the slightest of crumbs that our landscaping throws us, the Kelly green of Japanese rose's bark furnishes winter interest.

  • 07 of 11
    Picture of Koreanspice viburnum flower head.
    Picture of Koreanspice viburnum flower head. David Beaulieu

    Koreanspice viburnum, unlike Japanese rose (above), doesn't offer any visual interest in winter. But my, oh my, how interesting it is in fall! Like the next bush on my list, it's one of the must-have fall color shrubs.

    That's true of many viburnum shrubs, another example of which is doublefile viburnum, which blooms a bit later than Koreanspice. It's a good idea to grow both so that everything isn't at its peak of floral color all at once in your landscaping.

    Koreanspice's...MORE flowers smell wonderful, too.

  • 08 of 11
    Picture of flower of dwarf fothergilla.
    Picture of flower of dwarf fothergilla. David Beaulieu

    Even more than with Koreanspice viburnum (above), take fall color into account when you're trying to decide whether or not to plant bottlebrush (Fothergilla gardenii). I find the spring flowers less impressive than the autumn leaves, which can be quite colorful. I will say this much for the fragrant flowers, though: the aroma is unusual, bearing a hint of licorice.

    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11
    Picture of daphne with its white flowers. Buds on daphne start out pink but produce white flowers.
    Picture of daphne with its white flowers. David Beaulieu

    "Daphne" is another plant name with origins in the Greek myths, although the exact derivation, as I explain in my article (click the picture), is rather fuzzy. But there's nothing fuzzy about the value of growing daphne in your landscaping. What are the selling points of this early spring flowering shrub? Try:

    • Flowers with an incredibly sweet scent
    • Variegated leaves
    • Foliage that is more or less evergreen
  • 10 of 11
    'Golden Oriole' azalea lives up to its bright-sounding name. This azalea is yellow and orange.
    'Golden Oriole' azalea lives up to its bright-sounding name. David Beaulieu

    I'll conclude my list with a couple of azaleas. Read my full article to learn more about azaleas and rhododendrons.

    If you desire an azalea that blooms in orange, you have a variety of choices. As you can see from my photo, 'Golden Oriole' has light orange flowers. Gibraltar azalea, which blooms a bit later for me, bears darker orange blossoms.

  • 11 of 11
    Photo: Stewartstonian azalea has red flowers. They are numerous.
    Stewartstonian azalea can offer a dazzling display of red flowers. David Beaulieu

    There's no doubt that azaleas are among the most popular spring flowers in North America. Stewartstonian is a red-flowered type. It is yet another early spring flowering shrub that offers good fall color, to boot.