What Are the First Signs of Spring?

List of the Plants That Tell Gardeners, "Winter Is Over"

Yellow flowers of marsh marigolds growing in a swamp.
Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) is a wildflower and not related to the popular "marigold" sold as an annual. David Beaulieu

If you live in a cold climate, you no doubt look ahead every year to those first signs of spring that are so dear to us. The plant world sends forth these signs annually to tell us that winter is over. Below, we will take a look at what some of the earliest spring bloomers are. Some will be wild plants such as marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), while others will be landscape plants easily found at your local garden center.

  • 01 of 12
    Witch hazel flower closeup.
    David Beaulieu

    ​Spring brings many changes to the landscape and forest. Be sure to spend time outdoors during this exciting season so that you are there to witness its miracles. 

    One of the first landscape plants to bloom in a northern garden is the witch hazel bush (Hamamelis x intermedia). Someone new to gardening, upon seeing a cloud of yellow flowers from a distance on a spring drive, may make the mistake of thinking the shrub to be forsythia (which is much more common). But a closeup of the bloom reveals...MORE that this is an entirely different plant. Also, while forsythia does make this list, it is not nearly as early a bloomer as is witch hazel.

  • 02 of 12
    Two yellow crocus flowers pushing through the snow.
    David Beaulieu

    Some of the more popular bulb plants are among the first signs of spring that we most look forward to seeing. You can count crocus among these, even though it really grows from what is called a "corm," not a bulb (the next three entries are true bulbs). Crocus chrysanthus 'Saturnus' blooms so early that one of its common names is "snow crocus." Any given year, it is a toss-up as to whether this plant or the next entry will blossom first.

  • 03 of 12
    Group of snowdrops flowering.
    David Beaulieu

    It is not enough merely to look out the window one day and see that your snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are in bloom. Try to be there when they first push through the ground, and again when the first distinct white "drops" form on them. Of course, you will not want to miss the end of the show, either, when those drops fully open. Each step in the process deserves your attention.

  • 04 of 12
    Mass of salmon-colored hyacinths in bloom.
    Michel Gunther/Biosphoto/Getty Images

    Beginners sometimes confuse hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) with grape hyacinth (Muscari botryoides). Both are bulbs that bloom early in spring, but H orientalis is a larger plant. The sweet smell of the flowers of hyacinth is valued just as much as the way they look. There is also a plant used in water gardens known as "water hyacinth" (Eichhornia crassipes) that is not related to these other two types of hyacinth.

    Continue to 5 of 12 below.
  • 05 of 12
    Mass of blue Scilla flowers.
    David Beaulieu

    A lone Siberian squill plant (Scilla siberica) can't provide the kind of flower display that a hyacinth plant does, so you need to mass a bunch of these plants together to create any kind of visual impact at all. Nor is Siberian squill a plant with fragrant flowers. Its main selling point is the color of its blossoms: namely, a rich, true blue.

  • 06 of 12
    Hillside covered with creeping phlox in different colors.
    DAJ/amana images/Getty Images

    Creeping phlox (Phlox subulata) can be grown on flat land. But why would you want to plant it there, unless your landscape has no sloping ground on it? For creeping phlox really comes into its own when grown on the side of a hill, where you can get a better view of it. This is a short ground cover that blooms a bit later than the first signs of spring listed above, but it is well worth the wait.

  • 07 of 12
    Blooming Forsythia and Bradford pear, plus green grass in a spring yard.
    David Beaulieu

    Some people who have been gardening for years and who have grown every plant under the sun may not care for Forsythia x intermedia. They may consider it to be "over-planted." But what lover of spring and of nature new to the gardening scene would not be envious of a landscape such as this one? The star of the show is that brilliantly yellow hedge of forsythia bushes. 

     

  • 08 of 12
    Bloodroot, with its white flowers and curiously shaped leaves.
    David Beaulieu

    As if the return of the landscape plants listed above were not enough to cheer you up after the long winter, you also have the return of the wild plants to look forward to. Depending upon where you live, the spring wildflowers to which you are treated will vary. But, starting with this entry, let's look at five that are widely distributed across the forests of eastern North America.

    Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and the last entry below, Dutchman's breeches, have two traits in...MORE common:

    1. They are among the first signs of spring in the woods every year.
    2. They spread to form colonies.

    This second trait means that you could be in for a special treat if you are someone who likes hiking through the forest. Someday, you may stumble on one of these colonies, made up of hundreds of plants in bloom all at once. If you are ever so lucky, you will never forget the location, and you will revisit it every spring.

    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12
    Mass of Virginia bluebells flowering in the woods.
    Dennis Govoni/Moment Open/Getty Images

    Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) also grows in woodlands, although one does not find it growing wild as far north as one does bloodroot. If you will be growing it, take your cue from Mother Nature: Plant it in the shade. Remember, a woodland area does not receive much direct sunlight. In most climates, this plant does not do well at all in an area that receives full sunshine. 

  • 10 of 12
    Jack-in-the-pulpit hood with stripes.
    Jack-in-the-pulpit is grown for this curious hood-like feature known as a "spathe.". Masahiro Nakano/a.collectionRF/Getty Images

    All of the other plants on this list are valued mainly for their flowers. But Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is valued for the unusual plant structure known as a "spathe." While the beauty of this spathe may be subtle, there is nothing subtle about the brightly-colored red berries that come later in the year.

     

  • 11 of 12
    Cluster of Hepatica flowers in bloom.
    David Beaulieu

    You may not know round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) unless you are a wild-plants enthusiast. But if you go off on walks through the woods in April looking for the first signs of spring, you just might be greeted by this beauty.

     

     

     

  • 12 of 12
    Dutchman's breeches flowers lined up on their "clothes-line."
    David Beaulieu

    Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is related to the landscape plant, bleeding heart. Like its better-known relative, it flowers early and bears blossoms of an unusual shape (thus the common name). Be sure to keep it in mind if ever you decide to start a shade garden of North American native plants.