Early bloomers are beacons of spring

Oriental magnolias gamble on the weather each year, opening their fuzzy flower buds before the danger of a freeze is over. Photo by Kathie Rowell

Look around.

Signs of spring are everywhere.

Narcissus blooms are up. Tulip tree buds are swelling. Flowering quince are showing color.

God bless the early bloomers!

While the South is never without color in winter – thank you, camellias – there’s just something about the late winter/early-spring bloomers that lifts your spirits.

Need a little spring in your step? Add some of these to your yard:

ORIENTAL MAGNOLIA: Also called tulip trees because of the shape of the young flowers, these large shrubs or small trees like to live dangerously. They start opening their fuzzy flower buds in February or March, playing a game of chicken with the freezes that always seem to come around Easter.  I love them, but have to admit this habit makes me both happy and nervous. Some varieties, Betty, Jane and Susan among them, naturally bloom later and are more likely to avoid having their flowers turned to brown mush.  But then you miss the thrill of seeing their lovely pink, purple, rose, lavender, white or light yellow flowers when the rest of the world is gray. So, do you feel lucky? Culture: Oriental magnolias need well-drained soil and a sunny to partly sunny exposure. Make sure you know how large your choice will get – some grow quite large and you’ll want to make sure to give it plenty of room. Plant them fall through mid-March.

FLOWERING QUINCE: An awkward mass of spiny branches, flowering quince is an ugly duckling that turns into a swan once a year, then fades into the background again. In late winter, you can’t miss the vivid pink, orange, red, apricot or white flowers that open on the shrub’s mostly leafless stems. Be sure and place it where you can enjoy the show when it’s in bloom, but won’t notice it when it’s not. Culture: The Southern Living Garden Guide calls flowering quince “practically indestructible.” It can take just about anything except deep shade and soggy soils. Plant it late fall through mid-March..

CAROLINA JESSAMINE: This Southern native vine is often trained onto fences and arbors where it will put a smile on the face of everyone who passes by. About this time of year, it covers itself in golden, tubular flowers. Bonus: It smells good too! Just remember, this baby can get big, with branches growing as long as 20 feet. Plan on maintenance if you grow it on something small, like a mailbox. Culture: Easy. Carolina jessamine will do just fine in most soil types and exposures, although it will flower more heavily if you give it lots of sun. Best time to plant is late fall to early winter.

Snowflakes.

SNOWFLAKES: Where I grew up, these were called dewdrops, but most people call them snowflakes, both beautiful names for a lovely flower. Their deep green, strappy foliage looks like narcissus leaves, but the flowers are pristine white bells with a green spot at the tip of each petal. Simple, but gorgeous. Culture: Put the bulbs in a sunny spot with well-drained soil about twice as deep as they are wide. Plant them in fall.

TAIWAN FLOWERING CHERRY: Masses of small blooms pop open before the leaves sprout, creating a cloud of pink on flowering cherry trees.  While they bloom around the same time as Oriental magnolias, they don’t seem as prone to freeze damage. Culture: Plant in well-drained soil in a sunny to partly sunny spot. Best time to plant: late fall through early winter.

FORSYTHIA: This is another shrub that goes under cover after blooming, but it has a more graceful, arching form than flowering quince. It covers itself with yellow flowers in late winter/early spring, then becomes a fountain-shaped mound of green that blends in well with other shrubs. Culture: Tolerant of most soils, give it full sun for best bloom. Plant fall through winter.

NARCISSUS: My earliest bloomers are the Narcissus italicus I dug from my grandmother’s yard, but you don’t have to plant heirloom bulbs to get an early show.  February Gold, Carlton, Ice Follies and St. Keverne are all widely available and will light up your yard while the temperatures are still frosty outside. Culture: Plant in fall no more than one-and-a-half to two times as deep as the bulb is wide in well-drained soil. Choose a sunny spot, but underneath deciduous trees is OK since they will be leafless while the bulbs are in growth.

What would you add to the list?

Narcissus italicus is the first of my bulbs to bloom in spring. Photo by Kathie Rowell

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