Home & Garden Design
Publication Date: Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Spring-blooming shrubs
Expect flowers February through May

text and photos by Janet Bell

By February, most of us are really tired of winter -- although we know we shouldn't complain too much based on what the rest of the country experiences. We are ready for some life, some interest in the plant world around us. In order to accomplish this, I like to include a variety of early-blooming deciduous shrubs in the gardens I design. This offers an array of flowers starting in February, running through May, when the garden perks up and begins its summer blooming.

While many people appreciate the flowering trees that bloom here -- cherries, plums, redbuds, etc. -- the flowering shrubs are not as familiar. All of the shrubs listed here lose their leaves in the winter, which must be considered in deciding their location in the garden.


Hundreds of small white flowers make up Viburnum opulus 'Roseum,' seen here with the climbing rose, Rosa 'Sally Holmes.'

Also, many of them require quite a bit of space to retain their natural form. While they do not require a lot of attention, these plants are not care-free. They need to be pruned annually -- some after they flower, some in the winter when they are dormant -- in order to maintain their shape and to encourage maximum flowering. I have listed these starting with the earliest bloomers.

One of the earliest flowering shrubs is Chaenomeles, or Flowering Quince. You will see these blooming now -- the flowers bright on the thorny, woody stems. The more traditional colored flowers are red to coral, but there are many colors now available. There are both low-growing (from 2-3 feet tall) to tall-growing (to 6 feet tall or more) varieties. One of my favorite is 'Toyo Nishiki,' which is a tall-growing variety with white, pink and rose flowers growing together on the same branch.


Early-blooming Viburnum opulus 'Roseum'and Weigela florida 'Variegata' add life to a spring garden.

Weigela florida and its hybrids offer a range of flower and leaf varieties, mostly intended to grow in a fountain-like form. One of my favorites is 'Variegata' which is 4-6 feet tall showing pale pink flowers with darker centers, and a variegated leaf. 'Bristol Ruby' sports a deep rose flower with green leaves and grows about 2 feet taller.

There are dwarf varieties and varieties with purplish leaves that are good choices in a perennial bed.

My favorite plant in this category is the Viburnum opulus 'Roseum,' or Common Snowball. This plant will be covered with 2-3-inch diameter white flowers, each made up of hundreds of small flowers, as the leaves just start to appear.


Weigela florida 'Bristol Ruby' offers pale pink flowers with darker centers.

Branches can be brought into the house as a cut flower. It blooms mid-spring for one to two months. This is a vigorous grower and can be seen at 10 feet tall by 6 feet wide, or larger. The leaves are very attractive and typically offer a red color in autumn before dropping.

V. plicatum tomentosum, another flowering beauty, has a much wider form (6-8 feet tall by 8 feet-plus wide) and offers a lacecap flower; 'Mariesii' is one of its commonly sold varieties.

For those of us who come from the East and have experienced a row of lilacs (Syringa) in the spring, the experience here is a bit disappointing. Here, lilacs are not as vigorous and are subject to insect damage and powdery mildew. They still can be a good addition to your spring garden. Choose varieties that are known to do better in warmer winters, such as 'Lavendar Lady,' and 'Blue Boy.' (See Sunset's "Western Garden Book" for more suggestions.)

There are many varieties of Spiraea that provide flowers throughout the year. The spring-blooming varieties include Spiraea prunifolia 'Plena,' S. thunbergii and S. x vanhouttei. These can grow to over 6 feet high and provide small white flowers on arching stems in early to late spring, depending on the variety. It can be a very dramatic show. As with many of the other plants mentioned, this needs room to grow into its natural habit.

The last plant I'll mention is Philadelphus or Mock Orange (yes, there are other genuses with this same common name). This blooms in the late spring and is very fragrant. The most common species available include a native type (P. lewisii), and P. coronarius and P. x virginalis, which offers varieties between 5 and 10 feet tall. All of the flowers are white, some double and some single. The taller varieties can be planted in a row and used as a backdrop to your garden.

These are some of a large group of deciduous, flowering shrubs. They will add diversity to your garden, as well as allowing in the winter light. While some people may see them as bare "sticks" in the winter, if you try them, you will grow to appreciate that what they contribute in the early spring and throughout the year is well worth it.

Janet Bell is the owner of Janet Bell & Associates, a local landscape design/construction/maintenance firm. She is also a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. She can be contacted at (650) 328-3400 or jbgarden@pacbell.net.