The Earliest Plants, Zone 5B

A Reasoned Landscape banner
The Earliest Plants

You can make Winter shorter.

The earliest flowering things of Zone 5B can grant this wish.
You can count on certain early plants absolutely…in all the categories of scale. There are ground plants, shrubs and trees that come so very early. Just as the snow recedes, they flower, and we are encouraged in the impression that the winter is ending.
If you plant the naturally early ones in places where the snow first melts, they will be as early as early can be.

While some some of these harbingers of spring are well known, others, although entirely dependable and exceptionally good plants, are rarely seen.
Each of these kinds of early plants is precious and I wouldn’t want you to miss knowing about any of them.

Favorite Early plants you may not have met.

April Collage

After decades of Horticultural immersion, Conni Cross, a highly respected Landscape Designer on Long Island, was asked which were her favorite plants. She readily said:

“If it’s in bloom I love it.”

Many of us are subject to this predilection.

This is the root of the problem.
Garden Centers and small Nurseries
know that whatever is in flower is most appealing to the customers, so they tend to bring in plants that flower later in the year, when people are more likely to be there shopping.

For this reason, finding things that will flower very early in your garden can be tricky.
Some kinds of early flowering plants you may not have met yet can be just as reliable and welcome as the varieties more typically planted.

Knowing the names of some uncommon early plants can help you to find some of them for your future.

Once you get some of the rarer but recommended ones into your grounds, they will return to greet you every year. Many will multiply along over time, making it worthwhile for you to have gathered some of these good parents to get things going.
For the less common but wonderful earliest plants, you will perhaps need to find sources on line, aren’t we lucky that we can do that. It used to be much harder to find the unusuals. Years of looking even…..

These 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 forms.  If you look around, you may find varieties of them with diverse color or stature. Adding multiple colors of a kind of plant is often enhancing to the appearance of the colony. You might even like alternatives better than common forms.
Most 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.

Crocus tommasinianus
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. Less messy after flowering, perhaps more native in feeling  than the larger kinds.
Their typical color is a good lavender, but 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.

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.

I tend to keep these crocus away from true blue squills, whose bright blue diminishes their subtle lavender. The crocus is loveliest when it is paired instead with other jewel toned spring colors, or yellows and whites.

The lovely white to pale blue 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. These are strong bulbs. Both are happy, for instance, to occupy the same ground as Corydalis lutea, a perennial who will, from May to November, cover those same difficult places with graceful, soft yellow flowers. There is also an ivory form (Corydalis lutea alba) who flowers nearly that long too.

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

Around here, the Eranthis hyemalis provide sunshine yellow flowers in March, often earlier than even the squills. In the photo below, theirs is the incised 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 flower.
Eranthis multiply slowly at first, so try to start  off with quite a few individuals. If they come to you dry, soak them. Better to find fresh local ones if you can find a willing sharer with an old colony.

Scilla sibirica, Eranthis, Saxifraga cotyledon C. Lloyd form

Eranthis hyemalis with Companion Squills

Squills redecorate the Aconite leaves.
Even after flowering, the Aconites spiral foliage stays nice a long while.
trimmed when it loses its green freshness.

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. There are a few subtly different color forms. These are not the long blooming corydalines, but their early appearance makes them treasures. Their habit is that soon after flowering their foliage melts quickly into the ground. For ornamental garden purposes, it is perhaps best to nestle them amid some neat, shallow rooted groundcover who fills in to discreetly and covers 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 little bit later.
Phlox stolonifera and Vinca Jekyll’s white are also favored as slightly later flowering 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.

The Earliest Plants 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 a 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 alpina
Potentilla 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.
While lovely in a rock garden. This tough but beautiful plant has enough substance to be grown at the edge of an open perennial garden. Its size and quality of appearance through the garden year make it a very satisfying front row plant.

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. The pink one is P.Valley valentine.

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.

 I hope you will find some new
Early Friends for next year among these favorites.

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

Unusual Plant Materials, Troughs
Tools and Antique Garden Ornaments

This entry was posted in Garden Making Guidance, Plant Portraits and Stories, Your Reasoned Landscape. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • All written and visual materials on this site are Copyrighted. (C) Ellen Cool 2010 - 2021

One Comment

  1. Posted November 14, 2016 at 3:31 am | Permalink

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

One Trackback

  • […] 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 […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>