The end of the long gray winter months is often announced not by spring bulbs, but by flowering trees and shrubs, such as dogwoods. The merit of these trees extends well past spring, however, because the flowers on many varieties give way to berries that draw wild birds. Many decorative berries, while inedible for humans, are eaten by your winged friends, and their foliage may provide great fall color.
The best plants serve double-duty, giving you not only spring flowers but also colorful foliage or berries in autumn. One of the multitaskers listed below (a quince shrub) boasts more than just ornamental qualities—it has edible fruit.
Criteria for a Great Spring Tree or Shrub
There are a variety of virtues that can make a particular spring-blooming tree or shrub a good choice for your landscape:
- Showiness of bloom
- Foliage interest, including multi-season color
- Interesting branching patterns
- Cold hardiness
- Berry output and beauty
- Ease of maintenance, including disease-resistance
The trees and shrubs selected below are divided equally between early bloomers and late bloomers. Early bloomers are those that flower by early April, while late bloomers are those that bloom only after spring has fully sprung (late April, or perhaps early May). A well-designed landscape will feature mixed planting of flowering trees and shrubs, both early bloomers and later bloomers.
All of the plants on the list should be grown in full sun, although flowering dogwood often does just as well in partial shade. While most of the plants on this list are regarded as low maintenance, this should not be confused with no maintenance. It's always a good idea to winterize flowering shrubs, especially when they are young, to protect them against the harshness of winter.
All things considered, the dogwoods win the top ranking for spring bloomers, with an impressive number of landscaping benefits. The main standouts in this group are the flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida), an American native; and Japanese dogwood tree (Cornus kousa). 'Cherokee Chief' is a Cornus florida cultivar, but a pink dogwood tree called Rosea is also a popular choice for the yard.
The branching pattern of flowering dogwood trees is rather horizontal, which gives visual interest at any time of year. But this is particularly so in the winter landscape when leaves are absent. 'Cherokee Chief' flowering dogwood trees will attain a maximum height of about 25 feet tall with a spread of about 15 feet. The springtime flowers are red and yield to berries that the wild birds eat. In autumn the leaves turn bronzy-red.
Anthracnose is a severe fungal disease that attacks flowering dogwoods. As a fungus, it thrives under moist conditions. This gives you some clues as to how to help prevent the disease:
- When you water, keep your spray low, rather than getting the leaves wet.
- Promote good air circulation by not letting other trees or shrubs grow too close to your flowering dogwood.
- Grow it in full sun, so that leaves made moist by a rainstorm will dry off more quickly.
Japanese dogwood trees are less troubled by this disease. They also blossom slightly later in spring than the American dogwoods. For example, the 'Wolf Eyes' cultivar puts out its white flowers around the end of May in the Northeast U.S., whereas Cornus florida blooms in mid-April there.
The claim to fame for Wolf Eyes is its two-toned leaves, which don't change much when fall comes. But other Japanese dogwoods can sport a purple to red autumn color in their leaves. Cornus florida produces a smooth berry, while the berries of Japanese dogwood trees look more like raspberries. The berries, prized by wild birds, last into the winter months.
'Donald Wyman' Crabapple
Malus 'Donald Wyman' is a disease-resistant crabapple. These flowering trees grow to be 15 to 25 feet tall, with a spread of 20 to 25 feet. The pink buds open in April to become single white blooms. The flowers are fragrant, although they do not smell as good as another springtime favorite, lilac bushes. The tree has good fall color, and the ornamental fruits last through the winter; wild birds eat them into February and March.
A particularly good form of quince is the 'Cameo' (Chaenomeles speciosa 'Cameo'), a compact, spreading, flowering bush that is well-suited for a low border or hedge (this is a thorny plant). It grows to a mature height of 2 to 4 feet, with a spread of 3 to 5 feet. Its double peach spring blooms arriving in March and April easily makes this a favorite shrub. The edible reddish-yellow berry, ripening in fall, is used for preserves and jellies.
Saucer Magnolia Trees
Although star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) blooms before saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana), saucer's large, cup-shaped flowers appearing in March makes this a prized tree. Flowers are rose to purple outside, with a soft, white interior. This tree reaches 20 to 30 feet in height with a similar spread. Star magnolia is a bit smaller (15 to 20 tall, with a spread slightly less than that).
Forsythia x intermedia 'Sunrise' reaches a mature height of only about 6 feet, making it a more compact bush than some of the other popular forsythia shrubs. Spring wouldn't be spring in one's landscaping without the vibrant yellow flowers of forsythia arriving in March and April. The flowering stems make good cut flowers, and the shrub itself has a prickly habit that makes this a good plant for hedges and boundary plantings.
In ranking flowering trees and shrubs, the highest rank is given to plants that do the best job at performing the greatest variety of functions. While Eastern redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) deserve only a middle-of-the-pack ranking based on this standard, these American natives are still great spring plants. Their flowering performance at this time of year is powerful enough to make up for the fact that they offer little else.
Eastern redbud trees bear bright pinkish-purple flowers all along their bare branches in April, about the same time that crabapples bloom. They are among the few flowering trees that tolerate shade, although they will bloom better in full sun. Other trees and shrubs may match the color of redbud trees' blooms, but few are as graceful.
As redbuds come into bloom, their limbs appear to grow hairs that are really the beginnings of the flowers. Eastern redbud trees grow to be 20 to 30 feet high with a similar spread. The fall foliage is yellow, but it is not highly valued.
'Tor' spirea also makes the list of the best shrubs for fall color. Its botanical name is Spiraea betulifolia 'Tor.' This spirea is fairly compact, maturing at about 3 feet tall by 3 feet wide. It has dark green leaves in summer, which turn a red color in autumn.
In mid- to late-spring Tor spirea produces white flowers that are small but grouped in showy clusters. Goldflame and Gold Mound spireas are also late bloomers (they bear pink flowers, as does 'Neon Flash'). But they bear colorful, golden leaves earlier in the season.
Weigela florida is an old-time favorite that rewards growers with a fine springtime flower show. But the 'Variegata' cultivar, with its variegated leaves, is an improvement in some ways. It can be appreciated long after the flowers have gone by. It is a compact, rounded shrub (height 3 to 5 feet, with a similar spread) with green leaves bordered by creamy white. The plant's foliage alone makes it worth growing, but the pink blossoms are a bonus, which also draws hummingbirds. It is a long bloomer, providing blossoms from late spring into August.
Pussy willows (Salix discolor) are a native American plant and another early-blooming favorite for forcing. Since pussy willow is a wetland plant in the wild, it is ideal for any areas of your landscape that suffer from poor drainage. In a dryer location, you'll have to provide artificial irrigation during dry periods.
The flowers of the pussy willow are soft-textured catkins said to resemble the paw pads of cats. They appear from March to April, and stems can be cut for use in dried flower arrangements. Only male plants exhibit decorative catkins. Kept closely trimmed, pussy willows can be used as a hedge.
'Redspire' Callery Pear
'Redspire' Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Redspire') is a tree that blooms with lots of white flowers in early spring and has glossy green leaves that turn wine-red in autumn. This early bloomer is resistant to fire blight. The pea-sized pear fruits are not messy in the lawn or garden. The branching pattern on one side tends to balance out that on the other nicely, for a tight, even look, but this is not the most stable of trees, being prone to wind damage. It grows to a mature height of 30 to 40 feet with a spread of 20 to 30 feet.
Caution: This plant freely reproduces, and along with other forms of Callery pear, may be considered invasive in your state.
Tips for Using Flowering Trees and Shrubs in the Landscape
- Plant specimen flowering shrubs on either side of an entry to a house to help direct the eye to it. But choose varieties with interesting foliage, so that the entry will look good beyond the spring season.
- Hide a high house foundation with flowering shrubs that serve as foundation plantings. Again, consider foliage as well as flowers when choosing plants.
- Flowering shrubs can be planted near a home to "soften" the landscape, breaking up vertical or horizontal lines that are too strong.
- Some flowering shrubs are particularly effective in controlling erosion. Forsythia is an example. Its large root system will hold back a lot of soil on a hill.
- Flowering dogwood trees and flowering shrubs with attractive foliage can be used as a border for landscaping property lines or to define distinct outdoor spaces.
- Taller plants, such as some of the larger varieties of magnolia, can offer shade for patio and deck areas.