The Earliest Flowers that Bloom in the Spring

The Earliest Bloomers, From Ground Covers to Trees

Star magnolia flowers (image) make their appearance in early spring. They are the first.
Star magnolia is among the earliest trees to bloom in a New England spring. David Beaulieu

Spring flowers come along and cheer us up at a time when we most need it -- after we've somehow survived another long winter. Speaking for myself, it wouldn't be going too far to say that they help me convalesce as I recuperate from Old Man Winter's months-long blustery barrage. But if you're a landscaping novice, you should consider a couple of points prior to making your plant selection to help you decide how best to incorporate these angels of mercy into your yard:

  • Which kinds bloom earliest?
  • How can I inject optimal variety into my springtime plantings?

The present article answers the first question by discussing ten kinds of spring flowers that are known to be among the earliest blooming plants. Not that you shouldn't also grow some of the plants that bloom later in the springtime, such as lilacs and peonies; but the following early bloomers are especially prized for their ability to give us a "jump" on the growing season:

My Top Ten

  1. Phlox
  2. Vinca
  3. Snowdrops
  4. Scilla
  5. Daffodils
  6. Pasque Flower
  7. Lenten Rose
  8. Witch Hazel
  9. Forsythia
  10. Magnolia Trees

Regarding my second point above, don't think the only way to inject variety into your springtime plantings is to use different colors. A less obvious but perhaps more important stratagem is to grow plants of different heights, thereby forcing the viewer continually to change eye-level. Hence, below I organize my top ten choices according to plant height by placing them in the following categories:

  1. Short, spreading ground covers
  2. Spring bulb plants
  3. Perennials
  4. Shrubs and trees

I also include pussy willows below. For while, technically, they are not grown for their flowers, this cheerful classic belongs on any list of vernal favorites.

Click on any of the links to access more detailed information about growing these plants.

Spring Flowers: Ground Covers

  • Phlox
    Creeping phlox bears small blossoms in dense clusters. Massed together on a banking, creeping phlox plants make a powerful landscaping statement. The colors available are red, white, blue, pink, rose, lavender, purple or variegated.
  • Vinca
    Though a ground-hugger like creeping phlox, vinca is a vine plant, bearing larger leaves than phlox and bluish or white blooms. A tough plant suitable for shade gardens and requiring little care once established, I often encounter still-thriving vinca on abandoned homesteads.
  • (Honorable mention:) Winter jasmine
    It doesn't quite make my top ten list, but winter jasmine deserves mention here simply because it blossoms so early (March in zone 5).

Spring Flowers: Bulb Plants

  • Snowdrops
    Snowdrops are short plants, like the spreading ground covers above. But like other springtime bulb plants (and unlike the ground covers), their foliage dies back by summer. The "snow" in their name is apt: among the earliest bloomers, snowdrops are sometimes spotted pushing up through a layer of snow!
  • Scilla
    Like snowdrops, scilla is a short bulb plant that will naturalize and eventually carpet an area of lawn with color in April. But unlike snowdrops, scilla's spring flowers come in blue -- always a sought-after color in the gardening world.

Spring Flowers: Perennials

  • Pasque Flower
    Just as Lenten rose (below) may bloom in early spring, around the time of the Christian season of Lent, "Pasque flower" is so named because it blooms around Eastertime in some locales (Pasque being the Old French for "Easter"). And its lavender flowers are very much in keeping with the decorations for that holiday season.
  • Lenten Rose
    Like the taller kinds of daffodils (and tulips, etc.), Lenten rose's height (18"-24" tall) makes it more noticeable from a distance than the shorter examples of spring flowers I list above. Despite its name, this plant is not a rose at all, but a hellebore.

    Spring Flowers: Shrubs and Trees

    • Pussy Willow
      There are people who get a timely spring fever in March or April, and then there are those of us who "think spring" much earlier than that, despite being surrounded by snow and ice. If pussy willow shrubs were people, they'd fall into the latter camp, as they often display their fuzzy catkins while winter is still firmly entrenched. Often thought of as wild shrubs, you can also grow pussy willow in the landscape.
    • Witch hazel (picture above) flowers before any other of my bushes (not counting winter heath, which blossoms in November and retains flowers right through winter and into May) and is a more honest harbinger of spring than is the precocious pussy willow
    • Forsythia
      Forsythia is one of the most popular flowering shrubs. When those cheerful yellow spring flowers grace the arching branches of forsythia, we know Old Man Winter has finally and fully retired for another year.
    • Magnolia Trees
      Magnolias are among the earliest flowering trees each year to produce their spring flowers. Star magnolia stays shorter than many (15-20 feet tall) and blooms earliest.