The really effective gardens (meaning, they give you a boost when you most need it), tiny or large, supply botanical interest for every part of the season. Here is a selection of small shrub and trees that flower early and give us a jump on the floral stampede that begins in April.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
Above: Cultivars of the Asian witch hazels Hamamelis mollis and H. japonica, and North American H. vernalis unfurl their bright streamers in the cold of the new year. Witch hazels are small trees and large shrubs, often with a typically horizontal structure.
Above: Different cultivars provide a color palette from acid yellow (H. mollis ‘Pallida’) to warm red (H. x intermedia ‘Diane’); ‘Jelena’ has an orange center with bright yellow tassels, and ‘James Wells’ holds onto its neatly rolled brown leaves that lie like secrets beneath its pale yellow flowers. For best bloom witch hazels should be planted in full sun in USDA zones 5-9. Ideally, their soil should be slightly acidic and moist, but well-drained.
Above: The cashmere-soft kitten-paw flowers of North American pussy willow (Salix discolor) are one of the earliest of botanical spring messengers. Branches cut in late winter and brought indoors will open to give you an early breath of spring. They love water, and are an excellent small tree for poorly drained areas. As soon as the catkins have bloomed, select a third of the oldest canes (grayer in color) and prune them back to the ground, or to the trunk. This will give you fatter and more prolific blooms the following year. Plant them in Zones 4-8 in full sun and water them deeply and regularly.
Above: Some of the most surprising flowers to open in early spring are the Camellia japonica cultivars. Their deceptively tropical blooms are splashes of color when little else is in bloom. Camellias grow well in containers as they are slow-growing. The cut flowers last a couple of weeks in water and lend elegance to any room that they grace. Top-dress camellias every fall with shredded bark or compost, and fertilize in spring, making sure that they do not dry out when in bud. Growing from USDA Zones 7-9 (with some wiggle room in very protected sites in Zone 6), camellias prefer slightly acidic soil in partial or dappled shade.
Above: The tongue-twisting Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is a shrub that stops passersby in their tracks. Known as a late winter bloomer, its rose-tinted, tubular flowers are lilac-lookalikes, appearing while winter’s cold still paralyses most plants. As the buds open and the air warms, their fruity scent increases, inviting a closer look. ‘Dawn’ will bloom well in sun and partial shade, in Zones 5 to 8.
Above: Not a cherry at all, Cornus mas belongs to the dogwood family and is native from southern Europe, into the Middle East. There, it is valued for its juicy and tart red fruit produced in late summer. In very early spring its brilliant yellow umbels of blossom open like gold dust on the small trees, often while snow is still on the ground. Cornelian cherries grow well in partial shade but tolerate full sun, too. Not very fussy, they are hardy from USDA Zones 5-8.
Above: Edgeworthia papyrifera (commonly called paper bush, or yellow daphne, for scent reasons) is still a novelty plant to many gardeners. Fully leafed, it looks tropical, while in winter its strange, bare branches are prehistoric.
Above: In the earliest of springs and later winters, clusters of pale yellow flowers open from downy white buds. Their scent is heavenly. Edgeworthia’s natural habitat is east Asian wood- and streamsides, so this is a shrub that likes long drinks. It is hardy to Zone 7 and possibly down to 6 with shelter from wind (I have used it successfully in a Manhattan rooftop garden, where the world is much colder than at ground level).
Above: Winter daphne (Daphne odora) is a thrilling source of cold-weather perfume: its intense, lemony fragrance spreads right through a garden. All daphnes prefer some shade: dappled morning light and full afternoon shade are best. They need plenty of moisture and superb drainage (sitting in a puddle is not an option). Be very gentle when transplanting from a nursery container, as they do not like to have their roots disturbed. Hardy from zones 7-9, they are also happy in protected spots in zone 6b.
Above: While the fat-flowered prima donnas of the magnolia world reach their peak weeks later, the star magnolia, Magnolia stellata, upstages them by opening early, emitting a subtle fragrance. The slender pink or white petals festoon the compact trees and brighten up shady corners of the early spring garden. Before they open, the buds resemble softly-furred and silver pussy willow. While most magnolias prefer well drained, slightly acidic soil, star magnolia is adaptable and will tolerate alkaline and moist soils. They are hardy from USDA Zones 5-9.
Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various shrubs and hedges with our Shrubs: A Field Guide.