Story & Photos © Janet Davis
Spring-flowering shrubs star in a dizzying variety of roles. There’s the outstanding single specimen typified by the saucer magnolia, massive and resplendent with pale, upturned chalices of bloom. Or the neat disguise of a ramshackle garage wall by a dense screening of gold forsythia. And no fence was ever finer than a frothy hedge of cascading Van Houtte spiraea, breathtaking in blossom.
For the naturalist, spring-flowering shrubs like cornelian cherry, common lilac and tatarian honeysuckle are valuable not just for their flowers, but for the protection and food source they provide to birds and butterflies.
Here are 15 of the best spring-flowering shrubs, excluding rhododendrons and azaleas, for cold-climate gardens. While not necessarily the most refined or rare, all will perform reliably without much fuss, providing non-stop bloom from March to June:
1. CHINESE WITCH HAZEL (Hamamelis mollis)
Earliest to bloom, often in March – and sometimes under a dusting of snow -- with sweetly fragrant ribbon-like yellow flowers. Grows in a rounded shape to 15 feet (4.5 m) and enjoys moist, rich soil and full sun to ight shade. Hybrid witch hazel (H. x intermedia) is an offspring, hardier and somewhat shorter to 10 feet (3 m) with excellent selections like ‘Arnold Promise’ (yellow), ‘Diane’ (red) and ‘Jelena’ (rust-orange). Don’t confuse with common witch hazel (H. virginiana), a native shrub that blooms in September. All witch hazels have vibrant autumn color.
2. CORNELIAN CHERRY (Cornus mas)
Another early bloomer, with a brief but dazzling mist of fuzzy yellow on bare branches in April, well before forsythia. Cornelia cherry is a large shrub, often reaching 20 feet (6 m) in height and width. Is pest-free, enjoying reasonably rich, well-drained soil and full sun to medium shade.
Acidic, cherry-like fruits mature in late summer, much to the delight of birds. Purplish fall color and attractive peeling bark in winter, when budded branches can be forced indoors.
3. FORSYTHIA (forsythia x intermedia)
Blooming in mid-April to early May in the northeast, border forsythia has numerous good cultivars from 3 to 10 feet in height (.9 –3 m), some extremely hardy. For slopes, use weeping forsythia, a less strident yellow. Easily grown in any soil, forsythia flowers best in full sun, but tolerates light shade. Prune back the oldest canes at ground level immediately after flowering, but avoid the “buzz-cut” look favored by so many garden maintenance companies by letting the branches arch naturally and giving the shrub lots of room to grow. Forsythia is the easiest of all shrubs for winter forcing indoors. Read more about forsythia here.
4. MAGNOLIA (Magnolia spp.)
The spectacular April-flowering saucer or tulip magnolia (M. soulangeana) is a magnificent large shrub or small tree, when given ample space to reach its mature height and spread of up to 26 feet (8 m). Much smaller, at 10 feet (3 m) and blooming a little earlier with slightly fragrant, white, multi-petaled flowers is the star magnolia (M. stellata), along with excellent cultivars ‘Royal Star’ and ‘Pink Star’. All magnolias like sun but, in colder regions , they should be located out of early morning sun to prevent fast thawing and subsequent flower damage in early spring freezes. Preferring rich, slightly acidic soil, they are shallow-rooted and resent disturbance of their root zone (but enjoy a cooling mulch). That said, one of the prettiest pictures in my own garden was a big magnolia underplanted shallowly with grape hyacinths and pink Anemone blanda. Sadly, magnolias can be prey to scale insects which can cover the bark and suck out the sap, weakening the shrub; pay attention to your magnolia’s appearance, as these pests are easier to deal with when their numbers are small.. Plant magnolias only in spring to prevent damage to fleshy roots. Read more about magnolias here.
5. FLOWERING QUINCE (Chaenomeles speciosa ):
Brilliant waxy, scarlet, peach, pink or white flowers appear in early May at the same time as leaves on branches 2 years old or more. Therefore, it’s important not to prune quince severely, as flower buds will be sacrificed. Easy to grow in any soil, in sun or light shade, flowering quince matures at 6-9 feet (1.8-2.8 m). It can be espaliered and its thorns make it a good bet for hedging. Branches are easily forced.
6. DOWNY SERVICEBERRY (Amelanchier canadensis)
Known also as shadbush, Juneberry and thicket serviceberry, this shrub matures at about 20 feet (6 m) and has short-lived but pretty white blossoms in early April or late May. Preferring moist soil and sun or light shade, downy serviceberry has edible fruit in summer (excellent as blueberry substitutes in muffins) that are highly attractive to birds. It has spectacular orange/scarlet autumn color, among the best for shrubs. There are other serviceberry species, many of which are confused in the nursery trade. Of the 16 species of amelanchier native to North America, there are a few others that are good for cold climates. They include Saskatoon berry or Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) which is shorter and an especially good fruit-producer; Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea, syn. A. laevis),an small, upright, multi-stemmed tree which grows to 15-25 feet (5-8.5 m).
7. CLOVE CURRANT (Ribes aureum, syn. R. odoratum)
Also called buffalo currant (because the small black fruit were eaten by buffalo) and golden currant (because of the bright color of the flowers), this small native North American shrub (6-9 feet or 1.8 - 3 m) bears a profusion of exquisitely-perfumed, red-centered, yellow flowers in early May. Its spicy scent, which carries far on a spring breeze, is the main reason for planting clove currant, which is otherwise an innocuous little shrub. Likes sun, though it tolerates light shad; has excellent red fall color. Currants are the alternate host for white pine blister rust, so should not be planted near that conifer.
8. PURPLE LEAF SAND CHERRY (Prunus x cistena)
Valuable mostly for its excellent purple foliage throughout summer, this upright 8-10 foot (2.5-3 m) shrub also has pale pink flowers in early May, followed by purple fruit. Excellent for contrast foliage in the border, where it enjoys full sun and any well-drained soil. If you’re using sand cherry in this way, you may want to “stool” it to force the shrub to produce, new, brightly-colored foliage that is a better contrast than older shrubs; it will also maintain it at a perennial-like height.
9. KERRIA (Kerria japonica)
Shade-tolerant, happy in poor soil, lovely flowers, handsome green stems in winter – all this makes kerria a very useful shrub. The single-flowered form grows to 6 feet (1.8 m) and blooms in early May. It is less hardy, but takes more a little more shade than its taller cousin, Kerria japonica ‘Pleniflora’, with golden-yellow pompon flowers that bloom later than the singles and for a longer time. Kerria makes an excellent shrub for the back of the border or for a woodland path, spreading by suckers. Twiggy growth sometimes winter-kills, requiring pruning spring. And in a very severe winter in colder regions, the entire shrub might die back, but it will usually regenerate from the roots.
10. VIBURNUMS (Viburnum spp.)
The spring-flowering fragrant vfiburnums comprise a few members of a huge genus of 225 species and are invaluable woodland or border shrubs. All take full sun but prefer light shade in afternoon heat. Roots are easily damaged by cultivation and plants can suffer from soggy or extremely dry soil. Aphids may attack some varieties. All the viburnums with fragrant flowers are non-native, but there are many excellent North American viburnums (arrowwood, nannyberry, blackhaw, witherod, etc.) with colourful berries that make good wildlife habitat shrubs. Of the fragrant viburnums, the earliest is Farrer’s viburnum (V. farrerii). It grows to 10 feet (3 m), blooming in March or April (or even earlier, in a mid-winter thaw). Burkwood viburnum (V. burkwoodii) grows 8 feet tall (2.5 m) with shiny, semi-evergreen leaves and small, sweet-scented, white flower clusters in May. A little later comes Koreanspice viburnum (V. carlesii) with clove-scented flowerheads on a shrub 4-8 feet tall (1.3-2.5 m) Fragrant snowball viburnum (V. x carlcephalum) grows 8 feet (2.5 m) tall and wide in a rather rangy shape, but its huge, waxy, sterile flowerheads are extremely perfumed.
11. ROSES (Rosa ‘Harison’s Yellow’; Rosa xanthina; syn. R. hugonis)
There are a few roses that bloom in the spring, including two delightful yellow-flowered shrubs. ‘Harison’s Yellow’ (Rosa x harisonii) is sometimes called the ”yellow rose of Texas”, though it was born in 1846 as a hybrid seedling of R. foetida and R. pimpinellifolia in the garden of lawyer Richard Harison in New York City. It made the trip across the United States to countless homesteads in the Midwest and on the west coast, where shrubs would often outlive the pioneers. A very tough customer, it is drought-tolerant and hardy, growing 5-6 feet (1.4-1.8 m) with arching, thorny branches that are covered in late May or early June with masses of lightly-scented, lemon-yellow, semi-double blossoms. Grows 4-6 feet tall and wide and will sucker. Father Hugo’s Rose, a wonderful spring-blooming shrub from China, sometimes called the golden rose of China, is a graceful beauty that is scored 9.1 on a scale of 10 by the American Rose Society. The rose was introduced from Central China to London’s Kew Gardens in 1899 by Father Hugo Scanlan, At 6-8 feet (1.8-2.4 m) in height and width, its arching branches are completely covered in May with single, lightly-scented, primrose-yellow blossoms (it does not re-bloom later) and elegant, ferny foliage that turns red/orange in autumn. It is very disease-resistant and quite content to grow in poor soil, though it appreciates rich soil.
12. LILAC (Syringa spp.)
Lilacs will flower according to the amount of sun they get; this is the simple answer to most complaints about lilacs “not flowering”. They also need well-drained, slightly alkaline soil, enriched with humus, i.e. manure or compost. Older shrubs can be rejuvenated by pruning out 1/3 of the oldest growth to the ground each spring, immediately after flowering. Late summer mildew is common but not harmful. Buy your lilac in bloom to be sure you get the flower color and (especially) the scent you want. Common lilac (S. vulgaris) blooms in mid-late May in the northeast and can reach 15 fet (4.6 m). It has given rise to many excellent cultivars, including the French hybrids such as ‘Mme. Lemoine’ and ‘Charles Joly’. Preston Hybrids were developed in Ottawa by Isabella Preston and are very hardy with pendulous flowers in June. Read more about lilacs.
13. HONEYSUCKLE (Lonicera spp.)
Shrub honeysuckles are easily grown in sun or part shade in adequately moist soil. Although their foliage is rather coarse, they are very good screening shrubs in a natural garden, attracting butterflies and birds. Tatarian honeysuckle (L. tatarica) grows to 10 feet (3 m) and has excellent cultivars with pink or red flowers in early June. Zabel’s honeysuckle (L. korolkowii ‘Zabelii’) grows to 12 feet (3.5 m) with dark-rose flowers and lots of berries in summer.
14. VAN HOUTTE’S SPIRAEA (Spiraea x vanhouttei)
Showy umbels of pure white flowers in early June grace the arching branches of this slender, 6-foot (1.8 m) tall shrub, often called bridalwreath spiraea (though that name is more properly used to describe Spiraea prunifolium). Though overplanted in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it remains an outstanding, low-maintenance shrub for hedging or for including at the back of the mixed border. Give it full sun and reasonably moist soil. Garland spirea (S. arguta) is similar but smaller at 5 feet (1.5 m), flowering in late May. Prune out older canes on the white-flowered spring spiraeas to promote better flowering.
15. JAPANESE OR KOUSA DOGWOOD (Cornus kousa)
Unlike the lovely, but somewhat tender and disease-prone, flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), this one flowers reliably once established, blooming in very late spring with showy, white, pointed bracts followed by raspberry-like fruits that attract birds. Branches tier horizontally on shrubs that can reach 20 feet (6 m) in milder climates but slightly less in the upper northeast. Fall color is dull-red. Takes a few years to reach its flowering potential. Many excellent cultivars.