The Earliest Plants, Zone 5B

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You can make Winter shorter.

The earliest flowering things of Zone 5B can grant this wish.
You can count on certain early plants absolutely. Just as the snow recedes, they flower, and we are encouraged in the impression that the winter is ending.

Some are common kinds, but many others, though entirely hardy and dependable, are more rarely seen. Each kind is precious and deserves more opportunities to flourish.April CollageFinding things that will flower very early in your garden can be tricky.
The kinds you may not have met yet can be just as reliable and welcome as the varieties typically planted. Often this is the case because Garden Centers and small Nurseries know that whatever is in flower is most appealing to the customers, so they tend to handle plants that flower later in the year, when people are more likely to be there shopping.

Conni Cross, a highly respected Landscape Designer, when asked which were her favorite plants after decades of Horticultural immersion, answered:

“If it’s in bloom I love it.”

Many of us are subject to this predilection.

Thus, for the less common but wonderful earlies, you will perhaps need to find sources on line, but once you get some of the rarer but recommended ones into your grounds they will return to greet you every year and announce oncoming spring. Many will multiply along over time, making it worthwhile for you to have gathered some of these good parents to get things going.

Favorite Early plants you may not have met.

Knowing the names of some uncommon early plants may help you to find some of them for your future. Below are some of my favorite kinds, and each has proved as reliable as spring itself.

Hellebores are Amazing

This ultra hardy group of perennials includes some kinds that flower at Christmas time, and various other cultivars can appear in sequence through the early months of the year, some with their flowers still looking good in late May. Their foliage is evergreen, and that helps us get through winter too.
For information about Hellebores, please click here for my recent article about them.


Among the familiar earliest bulbs are Snowdrops, Crocus and Squills, but each of these kinds may be found in multiple varieties. For color, stature or other behavioral reasons you might like alternatives better than common forms. Most of the bulbs are best acquired in fall by mail order, but are fine as a direct garden transplants in spring if you have an endowed garden friend or neighbor.

2011 04 13_mhdland_0335
Crocus tommasinianus

This little species Crocus is an early bloomer, up with the first flowering things and willing to propagate along, so this is a great one for colonising. Since it is smaller in size and finer in foliage than the more usual Dutch Crocus, C. tommasinianus often seems a better choice.

If you plant them a few feet back in the perennial beds instead of in the front, after they decorate bare ground in March, they can soon be covered by the oncoming leaves of other things.
Their color is a good lavender, and there are other forms of tommasinianus with various tints and shades of the species amethyst color. Having some variants of color sprinkled in gives the colony a shimmering  quality.
I tend to keep these Crocus away from the true blue squills, who make the subtle lavender crocus less lovely than when it is paired instead with other jewel toned spring colors.

The lovely white bulb pictured below is Pushkinia libanotica. It is very willing and prolific. These and the true blue Siberian squills in the next picture do not mind driveways or roadway edges, salt and all, and multiply along. Both are happy to occupy the same ground as Corydalis lutea, a perennial who will light up the same difficult places with yellow flowers from May to November. Or they can be interplanted with most any perennial plant whose foliage will soon grow in to cover the place.

PushkiniaPushkinia libanotica

Scilla sibirica

The blue siberian squills are tough enough to colonise even in the midst of  Phalaris albopicta, the ribbon grass, and both are good roadside plants. The grasses cover the passing foliage of the bulbs. The white version of Scilla sibirica is lovely and useful too, though it may arrive a bit later.

White Scilla sibirica, Pieris little heathScilla sibirica alba

Eranthis, March 1st Eranthis hyemalis

Scilla sibirica, Eranthis, Saxifraga cotyledon C. Lloyd formAround here, the Eranthis hyemalis provide sunshine yellow flowers in March, often earlier than the squills. In the photo above, theirs is the palmate foliage between the blue Squills. Though the flowers have finished already, you can see how many there were since each early leaf carries its own central flower. Eranthis multiply slowly at first, so try to start  off with quite a few individuals.

Chinodoxa in an old gardenChinodoxa

Chinodoxa’s white or lavender-blue and white forms light up old properties, the spreading colonies quiet testimony to the number of years the place has been gardened and noticeably loved. Be glad if you can have some but beware of their fast multiplying character with lots of foliage to deal with afterwards. You will want some plants amongst the bulbs whose fresh enlarging leaves will help to cover the messy foliage, with maybe some shearing on your part. If you want multiplication, shear after the seeds mature and self sow. In the picture above they are distributed in the grass areas also and are mowed, but sometimes after they go to seed it would appear. Scilla sibirica is fine with mowing too but visible for a while in the lawn.

Corydalis bulbosa
Corydalis Bulbosa

The first Corydalines to arrive each year are the bulbous types. These grace early April and are reliable, here reappearing in the same place for more than 30 years, with each colony enlarging little by little. Soon after flowering the Corydalis bulbosa foliage melts quickly into the ground, but for ornamental garden purposes is perhaps best nestled into some neat, shallow rooted groundcover who fills in to discreetly cover them as they go by. Sweet Woodruff, Asperula odorata, can do a great job in the ‘up and over’ department. The Woodruff also flowers beautifully in the same place a bit later. Phlox stolonifera and Vinca Jekyll’s white are also favored overplantings for areas with small early bulbs .

Arum Italicum pictum Arum Italicum pictum

Okay, okay, these are leaves not flowers….but unless the snow covers them up the leaves can be cut for every flower arrangement from November straight through the winter and on into the next early summer.  This Arum is therefor beautiful in the landscape from the earliest days of the year. And, somehow, each and every leaf is perfect. Since the leaves stay impeccable under snow, the day it melts, there they are, and so I include A. italicum pictum here to help you shorten your winters.

Disporum flavum

Also called Fairy Bells, these Disporum arch gracefully at 2 to 3′ with yellow flowers in  April.  They don’t mind quite a bit of shade later in the season, and so can live happily in a woodland margin or under deciduous trees. Being early, they are ideal for the midground or back of beds, behind perennials that fill out a bit later.

Some Very Early Flowering Shrubs and Trees

The evergreen Pieris japonica and cultivars provide buds that look like flowers all winter. In earliest spring their open flowers in white or pinkish tones are enhancing to everything around them. Great in views with small early bulbs.

In February we can welcome flowers on the Witchhazels (Hamamelis), then when the twigs of grand old Weeping Willows glow yellow against blue sky, it signifies the beginning of the unfolding of spring.

The Pussywillows (in variety) provide branches of downy cottontails sometime in March. Although these are not flowers but catkins, they often provide the first bouquets of the year for the house. The cuttings shown below are from an 80 year old Salix discolor, an American Pussywillow. Once cut, the branches can stay in vases without water and look great for a year or until you are tired of them. Some Pussywillows are shrubby, but this one becomes a very large tree.
Before planting any pussywillows, I would do alot of reading and looking at mature ones though, as they tend to take up alot of space, make for alot of pruning work and drink alot of water.
But what a Harvest, plenty to share.
It might be a good shade tree for a Community Landscape, especially there was an overabundance of ground water. We find Willows in general residing in places with a high water table. They have always been helpful in keeping the water level lower where people want to use the land.
Pussywillow Harvest - A Reasoned LandscapeDaphne mezereum, on the other hand, is wonderfully easy and early shrub to have.
(Shown with Scilla siberica below).

Daphne mezereum with Scilla Sibirica
Daphne mezereum

Viburnum bodnantense and Daphne mezereum albumDaphne mezereum album

The white form of Daphne mezereum is early and reliable also, and makes a nice companion for the beautiful lavender Viburnum bodnantense shown here, which is one of the first of the tree forms to flower hereabouts.

Spirea thunbergiiSpirea thunbergii

The very early white Spirea thunbergii flowers before most things leaf out, and this plant doesn’t mind living in the partial shade that comes afterwards in a garden or woodland setting with deciduous trees. Its fine and feathery foliage remains freshly lovely throughout the garden season. As with Forsythia, you can bring in cut stems before flowering time, and then soon have indoor flowering in your vase.
S. thunbergii was once a very popular garden shrub, but nearly disappeared from the trade, out of style it seems, batched with ‘old fashioned’ plants. Being beautiful and easy to please, these should not be forgotten. You may need to locate them from a specialty nursery via an internet search. They root very easily.

In the very early shrub department there are also quite alot of Azaleas, and of course I don’t know all of them, but among the very best I have found are Azalea Mrs John Withington, Azalea Hally Jolivette and Azaleas Westons pink diamond, A.Aglo and A.Olga.
For a chart of the typical flowering times of various Azaleas and Rhododendrons, click this link to an article from Weston Nurseries.

Earliest Perennials in the Rock Garden

The first arrival here is Saxifraga apiculata. These are nearly evergreen and just tiny, but now they have presence as spring heralds with their pale yellow flowers. I keep them in troughs.

Draba siberica is among the first things to flower in the  rock garden, bright as butter. If you plant Vitaliana near Draba, a week or two later this plant will provide the bright yellow after Draba goes by, doubling the flowering time at that scale in the rock garden.

Potentilla alpinaPotentilla alpina

By mid April this alpine Potentilla is covered with leaves and white flowers. This habit may be a result of its place of origin, because with the short warm season of the mountains, it is a good strategy for the plants to get off to an early start.
This tough but beautiful plant has enough substance to be grown in the open perennial garden. Its size and quality of appearance through the garden year make it a very satisfying front row plant in general, while also lovely in a rock garden.

Happy Almost Spring….
I hope you will find some new

Early Friends for next year among these favorites.

My Best,
Ellen Cool
A Reasoned
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Stonework and Garden Design.

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One Comment

  1. Posted 2016/11/14 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    I don’t even know what to say, this made things so much easier!

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  • […] can do to make the winter feel shorter will probably feel good. Having some of the latest and the earliest flowering plants of all kinds and sizes in the tree, shrub, perennial and wildling departments helps alot. Most […]

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