Early Spring Shrubs to Bring Sunshine

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017 at 8:00 am

The past few months have been peculiar to say the least. The unseasonably warm January and February left many asking what happened to winter? While we felt unsure of the season, these early blooming shrubs were just waiting to pop and bring the season to life!

Hamamelis vernalis – Vernal Witchhazel
Hamamelis x intermedia – Hybrid Witchhazel

If you didn’t know, the word “vernal” comes from the latin word for spring, so it should come as no surprise that this is the time for Hamamelis vernalis to shine. Perfect for a sun to part shade with good moisture, the flowers erupt out of this plant from February to late April. The long, strappy, fragrant petals create a unique look that stands out in the garden or especially against a building. This native shrub often grow 6-10 feet tall and 8-15 feet wide. You might also consider trying some of the Hamamelis x intermedia hybrids. While not native, they have a similar look and will do well with similar conditions. Best of all, the hybrids come in a wide selection of flower colors ranging from lemon yellow to brick red. Witchhazel also has great fall color which can range from golden yellow to crimson.

The flowers of Hamamelis x intermedia 'Moonlight' exploded out of the plant this week and smelled delectably fragrant!

The flowers of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Moonlight’ exploded out of the plant this week and smelled delectably fragrant!

Forsythia sp. – Forsythia

It’s hard to miss these classic spring flowers in landscapes across Illinois. The bright sunshine yellow flowers make Forsythia glow from March to April (and sometimes as early as February).  While flowers are typically about the size of a nickle or dime, some varieties such as Show Off have flowers as big as a quarter! The plants also have a nice display of gold to ruby fall color. Forsythia come in many sizes varying from 1 foot to 9 feet tall. For this reason, many of the larger varieties must be pruned to maintain good size and habit. Plant Forsythia in full sun to part shade with moist soil for best results. After a very harsh winter, Forsythia may not flower well, so protected spots are preferred for this impressive shrub.


The flowers of Sunrise Forsythia are about the norm but still beautiful.

The flowers of Show Off Forsythia are huge!

The flowers of Show Off Forsythia are huge!

Cornus mas – Cornelian Cherry
Cornus officinalis – Japanese Cornelian Cherry

Cornelian cherries are the cheerleaders of spring. In March to April, pom poms of small yellow flowers pop out of the branches to greet the season with a surprising exuberance. While it may not be a show stopper like Forsythia, it’s a shining reminder that spring is here. As the bright yellow flowers fade away, glossy green leaves emerge to fill the space. Eventually in Mid to Late Summer, glossy red fruit appear beneath the leaves which are commonly eaten by birds. In fall, the plants usually have a degree of red fall color before dropping leaves for winter. Cornus mas and Cornus officinalis are very similar in appearance, but are most easily distinguished in winter by the more attractive, textural bark of C. officinalis. Both make excellent stand alone shrubs, but C. mas tends to have a tighter habit, so it makes for a better hedge. The fruit, while similar in appearance, is somewhat different in that C. mas has sour, juicier fruit and C. officinalis has more astringent fruit similar to Aronia melanocarpa. Plant these Cornus in full sun to part shade with moist soil for best results. Both grow to about 25 feet tall and 20 feet wide but can be easily pruned to maintain a desirable size.

The small yellow pom poms of Cornus officinalis

The small yellow pom poms of Cornus officinalis.

Now that we’re a few days past the equinox, I think it’s safe to say that spring is here and while we may still have some cold days ahead, all it takes is a quick look around to see things coming to life. I hope seeing some of these shrubs will bring a little brightness to these early cloudy days of spring.

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