The promise of spring is always seen in the colorful renewal of the neighborhood, as like clockwork, familiar flowers return to the local landscape. The plants below are particularly cheerful against the rather drab backdrop of few deciduous leaves and lawns that have yet to rebound in luscious greens. One needs only to take a drive around town to revel in the pastel bouquet that blooms just in time for Easter and Passover.
All of these plants signal better weather as they respond to the sun’s changing pattern of longer, warmer days.
Phlox ("Phlox subulata")
Known commonly as “creeping phlox” or “moss pink,” this mounding plant has needle-like, evergreen leaves and produces masses of star-like flowers in dense clusters. This plant is a herbaceous perennial that loves to creep over rock walls and makes a wonderful groundcover. It comes in pastel shades of lavender, pink, blue, white and purple and spreads out or over alls a little bit more each year. Phlox becomes denser with pruning (after flowering) and prefers full sun and soil that is rich.
Vinca ("Vinca minor")
Known as “creeping myrtle” or “periwinkle flower,” short vines that spread out over the ground producing small, star-like flowers in a bluish/lavender or periwinkle shade. The plant stands about 3 to 6 inches off of the ground with stems that may reach 18 inches in length. The stems root at the nodes and send out more shoots, making a lovely, evergreen groundcover. The flowers continue to bloom intermittently throughout the summer beginning in very early spring. Plant in part sun to full shade with good drainage. Vinca is fairly drought tolerant, once established-it thrives in soils rich in humus, but will tolerate average soils (producing less flowers).
Snowdrops ("Galanthus nivalis")
One-inch white flowers with three narrow petals that droop over dark-green needle-like 4 inch leaves. This bulb is a perennial that may naturalize in clumps. It is called a “snowdrop” as it has been known to “blanket the ground,” replacing winter’s snow. Snowdrops prefer full sun to partial shade, well-drained soil and plenty of humus. Plant these close together for a dramatic effect.
One of the most common signs of spring. Their green shoots can be seen in late winter and often survive spring snows and frosts. They are sometimes called “lent lilies” as they often begin to appear in the religious season. Narcissus may have gotten their name from a story in Greek Mythology when a young man of the same name became so enamored of his own image in a looking pool, that he fell in and drowned. Daffodils sprang up in his place. Narcissus come in many varieties of size, shape and color and prefer full or dappled sun and well-drained soil. They love to be protected by large boulders and get plenty of light under deciduous trees. Do not plant under evergreens as they may be too shaded to come up on time. Daffodils naturalize and need to be divided every five years. Leave browning foliage to ensure the nutrition, for the next year passes to the bulb.
Originally from Persia and Turkey, but in the 17th Century exploded in the Netherlands in “Tulip Mania.” They come in so very many varieties of shapes, colors and sizes and got their name from their turban-like appearance. Yellow tulips symbolize cheerful thoughts, white-forgiveness, and purple-royalty. Turkish legend has it that the red tulip became a symbol of perfect love when a young prince names Farhad fell in love with a beautiful maiden named Shirin. When he learned that Shirin was killed, Farhad became so distraught that he rode his horse off a cliff and scarlet tulips sprang up where each drop of blood was spilled. Plant this hearty bulb in full sun and well-drained soil with lots of humus.
Lenten Rose ("Helleborous orientalis")
A perennial with hand-shaped, evergreen leaves. The leaves may look ratty and brownish after winter, but will soon produce new, attractive ones. The most common color is a purplish mauve, but also come in red, yellow, green, blue and pink. They grow to 18-24 inches and last well into spring. Lenten Rose prefers partial to full shade in well-drained soil.
Pussy Willow ("Salix")
The most endearing of early spring plants can often be found on a later-winter walk in a marshy or swampy area. How many of us have picked a branch or two to watch fuzzy feet blooming inside our homes? Pussy willows are native to Canada and the Eastern United States and grow in shrub or tree form. Part of the willow family, these furry blossoms on the end of branches (also known as “catkins”) signal the end of winter. This deciduous shrub (also grown as a weeping tree) can reach 20 inches tall! And can be pruned to maintain a manageable size. They thrive in poorly drained soil-areas that mimic their native wetlands. Like full sun but tolerate partial shade.
Forsythia ("Forsythia x intermedia")
Commonly called “golden bells,” make a great border plant whether trimmed or left wild and arching. They are deciduous shrubs that are only found in a vibrant yellow. Their flowers often precede their leaves. Fast-growing, some gardeners consider forsythia invasive. "Sunrise" forsythia is a more compact variety growing 4-6 inches tall, whereas "Meadowlark" reaches 6-8 inches. The more sun, the brighter the blooms, and make sure there is well-drained soil.
Magnolia ("Magnolia x soulangiana")
“Saucer magnolias” are deciduous flowering trees that can reach 20-25 inches and are filled with fragrant pinkish-white blossoms. The trees prefer to grow multiple stems often impossible to train to one dominant stem. They make wonderful specimen plants but need plenty of room to spread out in the yard. Magnolias like fertile, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade.
Star Magnolia ("M. Stelata")
Sweet Bay "M. Virginiata" and Southern "M. Grandiflora" are extremely fragrant varieties that need a bit more protection from wind.
Bradford Pear ("Pyrus Calleryana")
These are the lovely pyramid-shaped white-flowering trees that gracefully line New York City Streets in early spring. They are often considered poor choices in the suburban landscape as their branches are easily broken in storms-many avoid using them as they are “weak-wooded,” but in cities may have a better chance of survival with large buildings to block the wind. The Bradford Pear, imported originally from Korea and China is familiar, affordable, and fast-growing and prefers full sun, well-drained soil and nearly constant pruning of many suckers. The Chinese Elm may be a better choice.
Be sure to take some time for a walk in your neighborhood or park to observe the joyous colors of early spring—they are fleeting, so you will have to wait until next year to see them again!