Harbingers of Spring

The winter months can be trying for any gardener, both old and new. With long, darkened days, frigid temperatures, and snow-covered landscapes, there is sometimes little for the gardener to do. We watch the birds, look through seed catalogs, and read. Looking forward to the first flowers of spring is a wait we can hardly endure. So what then, do we look for as those first flowers of spring? The following is a group of woody plants that are blooming up and early, when most of the landscape is still slumbering under the snow.


For those with extensive landscapes, beds flanking beds, and outdoor rooms of plants and structures, it may not be difficult to find some of these early bloomers. For new gardeners, some of these may only be found at your local botanical garden or arboretum. Search out your nearest collector’s garden to see rare and beautiful early bloomers, or the woods around the state lake may also contain some beauties. 


Witch-hazel (Hamamelis) may be the earliest flowering plant in the Central Great Plains region. However, this beauty is not native to the region and is not widely planted. However, the stringy yellow or pink flowers are borne on open, vase shaped shrubs in mid-February and last for a few weeks. The plants are airy and make a nice mid-height backdrop to a garden (10 x 10). They have nice, yellow fall color to accent the garden.

Witch-Hazel blooming at Grimm’s Gardens

Oregon Grape-Holly (Mahonia aquifolium) is another early bloomer, starting its floral display when gardeners are starting their spring cleanup tasks, in early March. This evergreen to semi-evergreen shrub is a nice addition to any landscape, but not commonly planted. It spreads outward and can be used in borders or under larger shrubs, in part shade. The clusters of bright yellow flowers are welcome when doing the dirty task of cleaning out beds. 

Oregon Grape-Holly blooming in Sabetha, KS

Another shrub blooming in March, Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles) is much more common in landscapes, especially as new cultivars are hitting the nursery in force. These relatives of pear and apple, begin blooming early with their bright pink, red, yellow, and white flowers. Most of the older cultivars are a rich pink-red color that can be spotted easily in the landscape. The shrubs grow from 5 to 10 feet tall and wide. The fruits are edible, but seldom set on landscape plants. 

Flowering quince is covered with bright pink-red blooms early

For most of us, redbuds (Cercis sp.) are the true trees of spring, their buds begin to swell and show color as early as March 10. There are many new cultivars on the market boasting variegated foliage, yellow or purple foliage, and flowers in varying shades of pink, or white. However, the redbud is native to our area and can be spotted as an understory tree along roadsides and streambanks. 

The pink of common Eastern Redbud in Kansas

While the Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra), is not widely distributed in American landscapes, it is a common sight along wooded areas in our area. Its leaves come out first, in March, followed by long panicles of greenish yellow flowers in April. This small, understory tree is sought out for its blooms by hummingbirds and bees, when there is little other pollen sources available. 

Ohio Buckeye blooming in the woods near Atchison, KS

Pussy willows (Salix sp.) have been favored by landscapers and gardeners for years for their fuzzy yellow blooms in mid-March. One of my clients has a weeping version of this small tree, and I always look forward to seeing it during my spring cleanup. Even the buds before the blooms are an interesting addition to the landscape through the winter. 


Weeping pussy willow before bud break

Keep on seeing the beauty of the landscapes through the winter.

Happy planting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *