Flowering Dogwood Trees

And 9 Other Trees, Shrubs in the Top 10 for Spring

Dogwood flowers
Nathan Blaney/Photodisc/Getty Images

Gardeners always get itchy during the cold-weather months for pretty spring plants like flowering dogwood trees. They want to be able to see trees and shrubs blooming in the yard once again. Their sad winter nudity becomes just a distant memory at that point.

The Top 10 trees and shrubs for spring presented in this article are so splendid that they even outshine the colorful spring bulb plants. Flowering dogwood trees top this list of great spring plants.

Later, in fall, they also draw wild birds (who eat the berries) and give you great fall color.

Bird-watching and landscaping can complement each other beautifully. The trick is knowing which plants are most useful for drawing wild birds. Many decorative berries, while inedible for humans, are eaten by your winged friends.

Some of these berries will be snapped up quickly by them, while others, such as the berry on the sumac shrub, serve as emergency food during hard times. The latter are not among their favorite foods, but they are good for bird-watching in late winter and early spring, when their desperation for food makes attracting wild birds easier.

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 an edible fruit. In addition, these Top 10 plants for spring can have a number of landscape uses:

  • Plant specimen flowering shrubs on either side of an entry to a house to help direct the eye to it. Do, however, choose varieties of flowering shrubs with interesting foliage for this purpose, 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, be at least as concerned with foliage as with flowers.
  • 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. They can be used in like fashion within your own property bounds to define distinct outdoor spaces. Even a driveway can be transformed from something hum-drum to something that is a joy to look at, if planted with such borders.
  • Taller plants, such as some of the larger varieties of magnolia, offer shade for patio areas, etc.

Flowering Dogwood Trees and Japanese Dogwoods

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 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 (by only about 15 feet wide). The springtime flowers are red and yield to berries that the wild birds eat. In autumn the leaves turn bronzy-red.

Anthracnose is a serious 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: 

  1. When you water, keep your spray low, rather than getting the leaves wet.
  2. Promote good air circulation by not letting other trees or shrubs grow too close to your flowering dogwood.
  3. Grow it in full sun, so that leaves made moist by a rainstorm will dry off more quickly. 

Japanese dogwood trees have less of a problem with this disease.

They also blossom at a later time in spring than the American flowering dogwood trees do. 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 a raspberry. They last into the winter months, and the wild birds eat them.

What Makes These Top 10 Trees and Shrubs the Best?

Having considered dogwood above, let's continue on to the other entries in this Top 10 list. Here are some possible reasons why the spring flowering bushes and trees included here make the list. They may have:

  • Showiness of bloom.
  • Foliage interest, including multi-season color.
  • Interesting branching patterns.
  • Cold hardiness: All of the selections on this Top 10 list for flowering trees and bushes can be grown as far north as USDA plant hardiness zone 5, at least.
  • Berry output and beauty.
  • Ease of maintenance, including disease-resistance.

Plants that have more than one of these traits will rank higher than those that have only one.

Also note that the selections here are divided equally between early blooming and later blooming flowering trees and bushes. By "early blooming" we mean the flowering trees and bushes that flower even in most northern gardens by early April.

By "later blooming" we mean, instead, those flowering trees and bushes that bloom only after spring has fully sprung (late April, or perhaps early May). Other shrubs (not included in this list) bloom even later. For example, mountain laurel shrubs often bloom in late May.

In fact, a mixed planting (early bloomers and later bloomers) of flowering trees and bushes is best, so that you may extend your display longer. Unless a plant is labeled as an early bloomer, the reader may assume that it is a later bloomer.

All of the plants on the list should be grown in full sun, although flowering dogwood often does just as well in partial shade (but see above).

Top 10 Flowering Trees and Bushes for Spring Landscaping

  1. 'Cherokee Chief' and Japanese dogwood trees
  2. 'Donald Wyman' crabapple
  3. Flowering quince (whether the "Storm" cultivars or 'Cameo')
  4. Saucer magnolia trees
  5. 'Sunrise' forsythias
  6. Eastern redbud
  7. 'Tor' spirea
  8. Variegated weigela
  9. Pussy willows
  10. 'Redspire' Callery pear

Malus 'Donald Wyman' is a disease-resistant crabapple. These flowering trees grow to be 15-25 feet tall, with a spread of 20-25 feet. The ornamental fruits last through the winter, and wild birds eat them in February and March. The pink buds open to become single white blooms. The flowers are fragrant, although they do not smell as good as another springtime favorite, lilac bushes.

'Cameo' flowering quince bushes (Chaenomeles speciosa 'Cameo') are compact, spreading, flowering bushes, well-suited for a low border or hedge. Their double peach spring blooms easily earn these flowering bushes a spot in the Top 10 list. The edible reddish yellow berry, ripening in fall, is used for preserves and jellies. Their height is 2-4 feet, their spread 3-5 feet.

In ranking flowering trees and shrubs, 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 spring branches. 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. But what look like hairs, at first, are really the beginnings of the flowers. Eastern redbud trees grow to be 20-30 feet high, with a similar spread. The fall foliage is yellow, but it is not highly valued.

Star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) blooms before saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana). But with its large, cup-shaped flowers, the saucer is still considered an early bloomer and is well worth waiting for. Flowers are rose to purple outside, with a soft, white interior. This tree reaches 20-30 feet in height, and its spread is also 20-30 feet. Star magnolia is a bit smaller (15-20 tall, with a spread of less than that).

Forsythia x intermedia 'Sunrise' reaches a mature height of only about 6 feet tall, 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, one of the earliest-blooming shrubs. And in case even forsythia bushes' early bloom time doesn't come soon enough for you, you can force the flowers.

'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-spring 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 3-5 feet, with a similar spread) with green leaves bordered by creamy white. This shrub's pink blossoms are really a bonus: Its foliage, alone makes it worth growing.

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 would be ideal for any areas of your landscape that suffer from poor drainage.

What, you don't have such a spot in your yard? Consider yourself lucky, as that means you won't need to install a French drain or undertake other such measures to cope with excess water. You'll simply have to be sure to furnish your pussy willow shrubs with artificial irrigation during dry periods.

'Redspire' Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Redspire') is a tree with lots of white flowers, whose glossy green leaves turn wine-red in autumn. This early bloomer is resistant to fire blight. The branching pattern on one side tends to balance out that on the other nicely, for a tight, even look. The pea-sized pear fruits are not messy in the lawn or garden, further promoting low maintenance. However, Callery pears, generally speaking, are not the most stable of trees, being prone to wind damage.

But don't confuse low maintenance with no maintenance! It's always a good idea to winterize flowering shrubs. And whether you decide to plant flowering dogwood trees, Eastern redbud trees or any of the other flowering shrubs or trees mentioned, don't forget to winterize young trees, in particular, to protect them from the harsh conditions of winter.