Hellebores, or Lenten Roses as they are commonly called in colder climates, bloom before their partially evergreen foliage starts to develop. This habit beautifully showcases the flowers. The species generally bloom in tones of soft yellow, peachy pinks and that wonderfully spring-like chartreuse. The newer named cultivars are incredibly varied, from the soft crimson of ‘Heuger Red’, to the deep purple striping of ‘Double Painted Winter Jewel’, to the deep pink picotee edges of ‘Cherry Blossom’. The flowers last for weeks and are followed by that sturdy evergreen foliage. I cut back last year’s leaves early in spring, usually when I clean up the iris and ornamental grasses, so that I can better appreciate those incredible flowers.
It won’t take too many more warm days to push that bright yellow harbinger of spring, the Forsythia, into bloom. In our area, it’s often one of the first shrubs to bloom in our gardens, acting as a cue to plant other things like peas and potatoes. Forsythia was once relegated to back corners and lot lines because of its unruly habit and unreliable bloom. The newer varieties are all about tidiness and flower power. I really like the Show-Off series from Proven Winners and ‘Starlet’ is one of my favorites. This cultivar still sets its flower buds on old growth, but they’re hardy to -20 degrees below 0. So come late March, Starlet explodes into a ball of golden yellow. And the mature size of 3 feet means that it can fit into any sunny border.
When Forsythia’s pop of color starts to fade, it sets the stage for the blousiest of all the early spring flowering trees. It’s not unusual to notice Magnolia flower buds beginning to swell by late March or early April. Star Magnolia, M. stellata, is often the opening act. This species is most often grown in a shrub form, though you can trim it to form a small multi-stemmed tree. The Star Magnolias are cloaked in fragrant flowers with lots of narrow white petals. Every few years, my ‘Royal Star’ surprised me with a few pink blossoms. So I really like ‘Centennial Star’, a newer variety whose buds open to pale pink flowers all of the time. And I’ve given one of the few sunny spots in my very shaded garden to the much later blooming ‘Sunsation’. The huge flowers form a cupped saucer and are golden yellow with rosy purple centers.
Every gardener has a list of favorite spring flowers. They always cheer us up just when we need it the most, after we’ve managed to make it through the long winter with our spirits unbowed. So I think I can survive the fits and starts as this winter slowly gives way to spring.