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Plants to Look Forward to as Spring Approaches

Casandra Maier- March, 2021

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Mindfulness is an effective coping strategy.  A mindful moment allows us to engage with the present and ground ourselves to the here and now.  Spending time in nature each day to notice what our senses pick up is a way to combat stress and feel more connected.  Observing the seasonal changes in the plants around us is a mindful activity that promotes connection to the natural landscape.  These are some of the trees, shrubs, and flowers to look for as spring approaches.  These classic plants are some of the very first to let us know that spring is on the way.     


Eastern Redbud

Latin name: Cercis canadensis

USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-9


The Eastern Redbud ushers the spring season as one of the first trees to flower.  The bare branches of this deciduous tree decorate themselves with long-lasting, pale pink blooms.  To identify the Eastern Redbud, look for a multi-trunk tree with horizontal arching branches and a rounded canopy shape.  The pea-sized blossoms signal the end of winter, appearing before heart-shaped leaves set in.  Eastern Redbuds are observed naturally at the edge of forests and tree lines.  In the landscape they serve as a specimen tree, thriving in full sun to partial shade, and standing between 20 and 30 feet at maturity.   These trees offer a moderate growth rate, four seasons of unique displays, and wildlife interest, particularly birds.  It is often incorporated into rustic and cottage-style landscapes or urban gardens.  A favored Redbud variety of landscape designers is the 'Forest Pansy.'  Variances in sun exposure develop deep purple coloring in the leaves of this variety.  On sunny breezy days, when the leaves of the 'Forest Pansy' catch the light, flashes of green and purple hues create a disco-like effect.                   


Saucer Magnolia

Latin name: Magnolia x soulangeana

USDA Hardiness Zones: 4-9

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Photo credit: ND Design Services Inc.  

Ending the winter season with bare branches, the Saucer Magnolia quickly transforms into a show-stopping display.  As early as March this deciduous tree develops large open flowers in shades of white and pink.  Some varieties blush with deeper hues from rose to burgundy.  The flowers appear before the leaves arrive, accompanied by a pleasant lemon scent, making them good for cutting and bouquets.  Named for its teacup-like blossoms the flowers grow up to eight inches across.  At maturity, this tree is equally tall as it is wide, at 20 to 25 feet, with a round canopy shape.  In the landscape it serves as a specimen or accent, usually standing alone due to its size and spectacle.  Landscape designers express caution to clients considering the Saucer Magnolia due to its fast growth rate, post-spring clean-up needs, and the potential for damage in the event of a late cold snap.  However, with proper pruning and care, the Saucer Magnolia offers shade and brilliant seasonal displays.  This tree also has its uses in fire-wise landscaping.                         



Latin name: Forsythia x intermedia

USDA Hardiness Zones: 4-9


Photo credit: ND Design Services Inc.  

Count on Forsythia to provide the earliest color of late winter and spring.  This deciduous shrub produces clusters of distinctive small yellow flowers as early as February in some regions.  It is why Forsythia is also called the "harbinger of spring," according to Missouri Botanical Garden.  Look for this shrub blooming long before other plants have started firing.  Bright golden flowers decorate upright arching branches  just before, or sometimes in combination with, dark green ovate foliage.  There are many different cultivars of Forsythia to choose from.  Most are known for being low maintenance, easy to grow, and deer resistant.  In the landscape this shrub is typically used as a border plant or hedge.  However, due to its rapid growth rate and potential to cause structural damage, landscape designers recommend choosing a smaller cultivar or dwarf variety like 'Lynwood Gold' or 'Gold Tide.'  These varieties grow between 6 to 9 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet tall, respectively .  Tolerating full sun to partial shade, Forsythia is known for creating more blooms with more sunlight.                   

Rhododendron 'PJM'

Latin name: Rhododendron x 'PJM'

USDA Hardiness Zones: 4-8


Photo credit: ND Design Services Inc.  

For this early spring plant, we focus on a specific cultivar, the Rhododendron 'PJM.'  While most Rhododendrons flower in the months of May and June, the 'PJM' starts its show much earlier.  This evergreen shrub closes out the winter season with rust-colored leaves, restoring to a deep green and producing bunches of contrasting flowers in early spring.  Look for tufts of lively blossoms in pink and purple hues, set against a backdrop of small leathery leaves.  The 'PJM' provides year-round interest and adds a pop of color to the evergreen landscape.  It is typically planted as a border, massing, or specimen shrub, standing between 3 and 5 feet with a slightly wider spread.   Rhododendrons are befitting of most garden styles, and complimentary to Zen, cottage, woodland, and urban landscapes.  They flourish in acidic soils with partial sun.  Landscape designers recommend the 'PJM' for its hardiness and tolerance to cold and heat.  This cultivar outperforms other Rhododendron varieties in climates known for temperature extremes.   



Latin name: Crocus spp.

USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-8


Photo credit: ND Design Services Inc.  

Bursting onto the scene with liveliness and attitude is the springtime perennial bulb Crocus.  These picture-perfect flowers boast more than 90 different species in multiple colors, including varieties known for end of winter, early spring blooms.  Crocus pop through melting snow offering the glimmer of hope that warmer days are ahead.  These small but mighty flowers express sass and cuteness in small low-growing clusters around short, thick, grass-like leaves.  Crocus is often found growing in planting beds, rock gardens, and woodland landscapes.  It is sometimes used as a groundcover.  Look for Crocus closing their flowers at dusk or on overcast days, only to re-open in the morning or in the sunlight.  They thrive in full sun to partial shade, but do not tolerate full shade.  As a perennial, Crocus return each season, and the bulbs may be divided to create new groupings and plantings.  Landscape designers caution that small mammals, like squirrels, may dig up and eat freshly planted bulbs.  Otherwise, Crocus are drought tolerant and deer resistant.                


Latin name: Helleborus spp.

USDA Hardiness Zones: 4-9


Photo credit: ND Design Services Inc.  

Before other plants have started to bloom, look for Hellebore.  This perennial starts flowering during the months of February and March and is known for a long blooming season.  Large, drooping, cup-shaped flowers adorn this broadleaf plant.  Hellebore offers multiple species and cultivars with flowers in every color from green, to pink, to deep reds, with delicate contrasting yellow stamens.  In many regions, this plant is evergreen.  However, in colder climates it is deciduous and may be subject to scorching and damage if not protected from winter winds and ice.  Hellebore is known for establishing quickly, being easy to grow, and low maintenance.  Growing in clusters, it stands between 1 and 2 feet tall with an equal spread and may be divided in early spring to create new plantings.  In the landscape, it thrives in shade gardens and understories, requiring full to partial shade.  While this plant is known for its signature nodding flowers, landscape designers note the 'Ice N Roses' variety.  This cultivar offers all the same Hellebore characteristics with upright flowers that say, "hello."                    



Latin name: Viola x wittrockiana

USDA Hardiness Zones: 6-10


Photo credit: ND Design Services Inc.  

Synonymous with spring, this classic herbaceous flower marks the end of winter and the start of spring.  Pansies are typically planted as annual flowers following the last frost date.  In some regions they are grown as biennials, planted in the fall, and rejuvenated again at the end of winter.  In the mildest climates they are hardy enough to serve as perennials.  Look for 2-to-4 inch flowers with broad petals and flatten faces over medium elliptical-shaped leaves.  Pansies come in every shade imaginable, some with streaking, speckling, or contrasting colors.  In the landscape they are a popular choice for flower beds, edging, window boxes, and containers.  Landscape designers often choose this standard flower because they are long-lasting.  Bloom time is easily extended by removing, or deadheading, the expired blossoms.  Pansies can be counted on into the month of May, and remain hardy in the garden until hot summer weather sets in. 


Latin name: Dianthus barbatus

USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-9


Dianthus, also called Sweet William, is a genus of herbaceous plants named after the Greek words 'dios' and 'anthos', meaning divine flower.  Although it is grown as a late spring, early summer perennial or biennial in some climates, it is also found growing as an annual in the landscape in early spring.  Plant nurseries offer cold-treated varieties that produce flowers and are ready to be planted once the threat of frost has passed.  Creating small dense bunches of of flowers in red, pink, white, and bicolor, Dianthus stand approximately 12 to 24 inches tall with medium spear-shaped leaves.  They come in fragrant and unscented varieties and thrive in full sun to partial shade.  Like Pansies, this flower also serves as a bed, edging, or container plant.  However, in areas where Pansies would not survive due to damage from deer, landscape designers utilize Dianthus interchangeably due to its deer resistance.     


Dodge, N. (February, 2021). Interviews with ND Design Services Inc. 

Monrovia. (2020). Eastern Redbud. Monrovia Nursery Company.

Missouri Botanical Garden. (2021). Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy.' Plant Finder.

Missouri Botanical Garden. (2021). Magnolia x soulangeana. Plant Finder.

Monrovia. (2020). Saucer Magnolia. Monrovia Nursery Company.

Missouri Botanical Garden. (2021). Forsythia x intermedia 'Lynwood Variety.' Plant Finder.

Monrovia. (2020). Gold Tide Forsythia. Monrovia Nursery Company.

Monrovia. (2020). P.J.M. Rhododendron. Monrovia Nursery Company.

North Carolina Extension Gardener, Plant Toolbox. (2021). Crocus. NC State Extension.

North Carolina Extension Gardener, Plant Toolbox. (2021). Helleborus x glandorfensis 'Ice N Roses'. NC State Extension.

Missouri Botanical Garden. (2021). Helleborus orientalis. Plant Finder.

Missouri Botanical Garden. (2021). Viola x wittrockiana. Plant Finder.

Missouri Botanical Garden. (2021). Dianthus barbatus. Plant Finder.

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