What more sure sign of spring is there than this crazy see-sawing weather? Despite the unwelcome flux, plants in our landscapes have certainly come to the consensus that spring has sprung. In gardens and on roadsides, in woodlands and open fields, various plants have awoken and are bursting with color. I am grateful for the chance to rid myself of my cabin fever and go hiking, seeking both wildflowers and wildlife. (More on those wildflowers and wild creatures soon!)
One of our earliest flowering trees is the Redbud. The name is pretty misleading, because they’re definitely not red, but I suppose next to all those other white- and soft pink-flowering trees you’ve gotta call them something. “Violet-bud” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way, so I learn to not fuss too much over the details. Regardless of the name, they are one of my favorite native trees; the flowers are like adorable miniature sweet peas (or something cute with big Dumbo ears), attached right to the bark and outlining the branches with very noticeable color since they’ve no competition from leaves yet. I never tire of seeing them dot the edge of the woods, leaning outwards a bit into the sun, or shining in someone’s sunny yard in full symmetrical glory. Most are a color that I would describe as violet-pink (not quite pink, but not exactly purple), but there are other color forms that I wish were more popular. Varieties with white flowers are on the market, as are darker shades of the common color, derived from the southern strains (yes, they’re perfectly hardy here). There’s pale pink and even a “red” (ok, more of a light magenta) which was – surprise! – discovered in Maryland. Why no one seems to plant a medley of the different colors together perplexes me, because it would make a beautiful mixed grove of trees. If weeping’s your thing, there are multiple varieties of weeping forms. For the foliage lovers out there, several also have interesting leaves – deep plum-burgundy, bright golden-orange, and white-splashed green. Because I love them all, I order as many varieties of Redbud as I can get my hands on, but since the uncommon forms are so hard to find, we never have very many; spring is your best bet and many are at peak bloom right now.
Next up in the bloom cycle are the Serviceberries; many are starting to flower right now, and the rest will follow suit soon, peaking around mid-April. Like the Redbuds, they thrive on the edge of the woods or in open spaces. This is another favorite of mine for multiple reasons: I enjoy the dainty look of the flowers (they bloom just after those weedy white-flowering pears but aren’t as overwhelming), the foliage is always colorful in the fall and, my top reason – the fruits are delicious. If you can get any, that is, because the birds also keep a close eye on them and start snapping them up before they’re fully ripe. Still, my mission every summer is to find enough berries to cook something with – I’m aiming for pancakes or muffins, because I adore baked goods. They’re essentially a purple blueberry (does that make them purpleberries?): sweet with some tartness, juicy, only mildly seedy and easy to cook with. I’ve succeeded in past years harvesting enough to snack on, but never enough yet for a recipe…maybe this summer! I’m trying for a pie, but even adding some to cereal or yogurt would be an accomplishment. Either way, I’ll have to wait until June to try again; hence the other common name for these trees – Juneberries.
Flowering Cherries are just past peak season right now and Dogwoods are just about to get started (yes, there are a few eager ones already blooming), but they’re pretty big groups so we’ll explore those in an upcoming article to give them their due.
Some spring-flowering shrubs got a jump on the season around the New Year when we had that ridiculously mild weather; I saw Winter Jasmine, Fragrant Wintersweet and Mahonia in full flower many weeks ahead of normal. Still, most spring-blooming shrubs are on-target now like the familiar Forsythia and Quince. Anyone who pays any attention to the landscape this time of year knows Forsythia, even if you don’t know its name. Screaming yellow, they beckon from long hedgerows to mailbox accents, and every year I’m surprised anew when I see respectable flowering by those engulfed in what is sure to be summer shade. Sure, they prefer full sun, but apparently no one taught these to read the gardening books. Still, few people realize that there are great options for Forsythia growers now: gone are the days that you only had the tall-growing monsters that need to be tamed with pruners every year or two; now, you can pick from several dwarf forms that won’t outgrow their welcome (or your yard). There’s even some with leaves that add interest long after the flowers fade from memory. I personally love the color yellow, but the intensity of Forsythia is a bit much even for me. What to do with them? A dark evergreen backdrop sets them off nicely, but I’d like to see them mixed with something that flowers dark purple or violet, like Pansies or Hyacinths (more on that below). Or, go with foliage color and use a burgundy-leaved Fringe-flower shrub or red-leaved Sedum – either would be subduing and stunning at the same time.
Quince has undergone a recent resurgence in choice as well, with forms that have larger flowers, more petals, and fewer thorns (wait, they had thorns? yes, they’re one of the sneaky ones that don’t look like they’re spiny). I’ve always wondered what pairs well with them, because I think a lone flowering shrub can look a bit forlorn, but I’ve come up with a few ideas. Quince colors are often pastel peach, intense scarlet, reddish-orange or rich pink. What goes with peach or orange, especially this early in spring when our options are limited? Try a complementary color of blue or purple to really get attention; quinces flower with the leaves emerging, so making the lighter colors stand out more really helps. Hyacinths (the “grape” type or the “normal” ones) would look great next to quince, and you can pick colors to complement or contrast. Perennial creeping Phlox and Ajuga also comes in purple or bluish-lavender and can be in bloom at the same time. Pansies come in many deep purple or blue colors and will definitely be in bloom. You can also play foliage colors against Quince flowers – imagine a creeping Juniper or Sedum in gray-blue beneath peach flowers or yellow forms beneath scarlet flowers. As with many spring-interest plants, look for them in stock now, because once they sell out they’ll be gone for another season.
Soon to appear in the landscape are two more unsung heroes of spring: Crabapple and Deutzia. Crabapples are still trying to shake the bad reputation they developed decades ago when varieties were more susceptible to foliage disease. Modern varieties have produced many great choices that have great disease resistance and more freedom from other nuisances such as Japanese Beetle feeding and dropping fruits. (We only stock those known to grow well here with little to no fuss.) I’ve recently spotted early varieties coming into bloom, and the rest will follow suit soon. Birds will thank you for the food source, and some varieties are one of the few flowering trees you can fit in some pretty small spaces. I think it’s time Crabapples had their chance to shine again.
Deutzia is another one of those underused shrubs that you can encounter at places like Brookside Gardens or the National Arboretum but rarely in commercial plantings or residential yards. I don’t know why – plenty of other popular shrubs only bloom a few short weeks a year – and these, I think, have more going for them. Ok, so the name is cumbersome…it’s probably supposed to be pronounced “doy-tzee-uh” but everyone says “dew-tsee-uh.” In either case, fall color is reliable in Deutzia but seldom appreciated; the leaves turn completely ruby to burgundy and pair fantastically well with silvery-blue evergreens or fall bloomers such as white pansies or pink mums. The “oldie but goodie” on the market is the variety ‘Nikko,’ which makes a great groundcover if you space them properly and texturally they will remind you of a low, flowing ornamental grass (think Hakone grass, but for more sun). Newer varieties, though, add more options with either pink-striped flowers or bright yellow leaves. Whenever I encounter them, nothing ever seems to be bothering them, so it’s a wonder it isn’t tried more often. I think it would look splendid on a slope, or used a low border in front of taller shrubs, or under a small tree that doesn’t cast too much shade.
Springtime is when we fall in love with gardening again, before the oppressive heat of summer and ambitious mosquitoes remind us why we invented fun things to do inside. Still, year-round gardening has its rewards (fresh food…fresh bouquets…butterflies! need I say more?) and all gardens should have elements of interest for the entire year. We tend to put thought into decorating the inside of our homes, but I feel the outside deserves just as much love and thought. After all, it’s often the first impression guests have of our home, and it’s the first thing to welcome us home when we leave. It’s easy to have a year-round garden, with a little planning, and we’re here to help you achieve that. This article will kick off a series of explorations into what’s in season (or what deserves a spotlight, no matter the season), through the lens of my passion for plants. Since I work mostly with the woody plants (hardy trees, shrubs and vines), the focus will be there, but I love imagining great plant combinations and I am a fan of all things native, so there will be some cross-pollination, if you will, with our other departments as well. Let’s get out there and plant something new!
by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer