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 can extend well past spring, however, because the flowers on many varieties give way to berries that attract wild birds, and some offer colorful foliage in autumn. There are even multitaskers that boast more than just ornamental qualities by bearing 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 features mixed planting of flowering trees and shrubs and includes 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, dogwoods win the top ranking for spring bloomers, with an impressive number of landscaping benefits. The two main standouts in this group are the flowering dogwood tree (Cornus florida), an American native species, and the Japanese dogwood tree (Cornus kousa).
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. Two popular varieties of Cornus florida are 'Cherokee Chief' and 'Rubra'.
Cherokee Chief attains a maximum height of about 25 feet with a spread of about 15 feet. Its springtime flowers are red and yield to berries that birds like to eat. In autumn the leaves turn bronzy-red. Rubra is commonly known as the pink dogwood or pink flowering dogwood. It reaches 15 to 30 tall, with a similar spread, and flowers from April to May.
Japanese dogwood trees are relatively disease-resistant and 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 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 make this a favorite shrub. The edible reddish-yellow quince berries ripen in fall and are commonly 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 make 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. To many gardeners, spring just wouldn't be spring 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 that 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 with a height 3 to 5 feet and a similar spread and has green leaves bordered by creamy white. The plant's foliage alone makes it worth growing, but the pink blossoms are a bonus, and they also draw 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 a landscape that suffer from poor drainage. In dry locations, artificial irrigation may be required 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 is nicely balanced on all sides of the tree, resulting in a tight, even look. However, this is not the most stable of trees and is 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
- Planting specimen flowering shrubs on either side of the home's entry helps direct the eye to it. Be sure to choose varieties with interesting foliage so that the entry will look good beyond the spring season.
- You can 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. For example, forsythia has a large root system that can help hold back 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 provide shade for patio and deck areas.