What’s Blooming Now: Early Spring Flowers
March 26, 2019
Pretense of spring? I’ll take it!
Sure, it feels like spring – cherry buds bursting to life, birds singing, warm breezes… But brace yourself because the cold and rain are not quite done for the season. The good news is, early spring blossoms are emerging in earnest, marking the start of truly remarkable seasonal changes in the Pacific Northwest. Since we are approaching the warm season, and with it a profusion of flowering species, we wanted to focus on a few powerhouse early bloomers that breathe life into winter dormant gardens.
Don’t let the name fool you, while cornelian cherry is one of the first trees to bloom in spring and produces red berries in summer, it’s not a cherry at all! You might remember our post last year about dogwoods (genus Cornus), beloved for their versatility and robust flowers. Well, cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) may look different than your typical dogwood, but it shares the same great features that make it an excellent addition to landscapes of all sizes.
Shown Above: Cornelian Cherry – Cornus mas
Native to most of Europe and parts of Asia, cornelian cherry is right at home in our temperate climate. Like other species of dogwood, cornelian cherry flowers appear as clusters of tiny blooms centered within larger bracts that frame the blossom. One cluster of flowers alone would not be especially remarkable, but when the entire canopy is covered, this little tree will make you stop and stare. When fully in bloom, this little tree becomes a cloud of yellow blooms, brightening even the dreariest early spring day.
The profusion of flowers gives way to single berries in summer, starting green and ripening to deep red or yellow. The berries are edible, though sour, and can be eaten fresh, used for jams and syrups, or — as historically used in much of Europe — distilled into liquor!
In addition to its stunning spring flowers and edible fruit, we love this tree for its small size (10-15’ tall and wide), rounded canopy, and lush summer leaves. Adaptable to many types of soil, including clay, and resistant to deer, dogwood anthracnose and borers, this tree is as hardy as it is beautiful. Plant in full sun or partial shade, for a bountiful berry crop make sure the tree gets enough sun to ripen the berries fully.
Native to much of the west coast, with most species native to California and a few native here in the Pacific Northwest, manzanita is prized by hikers and naturalists, but often overlooked in landscape design. Although there are more than fifty species in the genus (Arctostaphylos) and dozens of cultivars available, shrub forms can be hard to find, while the native groundcover Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is practically ubiquitous. This may be because many species do best in their natural habitat: rugged dry slopes and cliffs along the west coast from California to Washington.
Shown Above: Manzanita – Arctostaphylos ssp.
However, a few species of manzanita have been hybridized and cultivated specifically for garden use and can be more readily found in local nurseries. One of our favorite cultivars is the Sunset Manzanita (Arctostaphylos x ‘Sunset’). It is as rugged as its parent species, but maintains a full shape with consistent evergreen foliage where other species may become scraggly over time.
An early bloomer, clusters of small, urn-shaped flowers ranging from white to blush pink cover the shrub in a spectacular show through March. Small evergreen leaves emerge tinged with orange in spring and summer (hence the name) and mature to deep green. The bark of this shrub is also remarkable. Often growing into sinuous, elegant curves, the branches begin to exfoliate as the shrub matures – sloughing off to reveal smooth, deep red-brown bark.
Manzanita is incredibly hardy and drought tolerant if planted in full sun and makes a perfect addition to dry landscapes with southern or western exposure. Growing between 6-10’ tall and wide, this shrub needs plenty of space but very little water and can survive our hot dry summers without irrigation. Plant in a rockery, xeriscape or other water-wise landscape as a specimen or in a row to create a screening hedge.
Ah, crocuses. Nothing imbues magic in the garden like a swathe of blooming crocuses, creating a sudden splash of color reminiscent of fairy circles in the forest. While we often associate crocuses with traditional gardens and cottage pathways, these bulbs are quite versatile and lend themselves to any style of garden that needs an early spring pick-me-up.
Shown Above: Crocus – Crocus ssp.
A member of the iris family, we love these little flowers because they are not only beautiful, they’re hardy, as well. Not true bulbs, crocuses grow from corms — a fleshy stem base protected by scales, that enables them to spread underground, producing more flowers every year and often creating surprising patterns in the garden. The corm also allows the crocus to store energy while dormant, so they come back year after year. Like bulbs, crocuses should be planted in autumn, in shallow holes with well-draining soil and partial to full sun exposure. Since they usually bloom before other plants leaf out, they can be planted directly beneath deciduous shrubs and trees.
For a naturalistic effect, try planting clusters of crocus scattered throughout the garden, along pathways and even under the lawn. For a more formal appearance, plant them in a row along the top of a wall or garden bed edge to create a clean line of spring color. Crocuses tend to come in shades of purple, ranging from lilac to deep violet, with the occasional white and bright yellow accent. We love mixing them with low evergreen groundcovers and other bulbs to create a low maintenance border for narrow spaces. Try combining them with dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Nana’), ivy-leaved cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) and daffodils for an unbeatable all-season border.