Early bloomers welcome spring

  • Article by: DEB BROWN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 10, 2012 - 3:03 PM

Magnolias, forsythia and rhododendron are among spring showoffs.

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A Royal Star magnolia is zone hardy here.

Photo: Bailey Nurseries,

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Our bizarrely warm weather has coaxed early-flowering trees and shrubs into bloom even earlier than usual, creating a show of bright yellows and whites, pale pinks and even electric lavenders. If you'd like to plant one of these large, often eye-catching specimens, now is an excellent time. Many of them might still be in bloom at garden centers, which means you can choose the flowers that appeal to you. And if you plant now, you'll add a warm welcome to next spring -- no matter what the weather's like.

Fuss-free forsythia

Forsythia provides the first real pop of color to our drab late winters. These large shrubs typically have arching branches, covered from top to bottom with bright gold or yellow blossoms. They bloom best in full sunlight, but also will produce flowers in partial shade, just fewer of them.

Fortunately, they're not fussy about soil type or moisture. Average rainfall usually meets their needs. You do have to trim them after blooming, though, if you don't want them to grow too tall and rangy.

A few favorites for Minnesota include Northern Sun, Meadowlark, Northern Gold (which has colorful fall foliage) and Gold Tide, which is shorter and more mound-shaped.

Spring star

Magnolias also bloom very early, producing showy large, white flowers on leafless stems and branches. While they may look delicate, some magnolias are quite hardy here, particularly star magnolias such as Centennial or Royal Star and the loebner magnolias, Merrill and Leonard Messel, a cultivar distinguished by its pale pink flowers. Available as multi-stemmed shrubs or small trees, most magnolia blossoms are quite fragrant and all of them produce unusual seed pods that lend interest year-round.

They bloom best in full sun, but need some protection. Don't plant them near the south side of your house: The warmer microclimate there can cause them to bloom too early, leaving flowers vulnerable to late frost. A sheltered site, such as the east side of the house, with rich, slightly acidic soil is ideal. For best growth, water magnolias thoroughly throughout the growing season, whenever rainfall is sparse.

For birds and bees

Nanking cherry blossoms are less spectacular than the huge magnolia blossoms, but this plant is still a worthy spring bloomer. This large shrub with many slender branches is quite attractive when in bloom. Pale pink buds open to form clouds of small white flowers, which attract lots of bees. Not long after blooming, the shrub will be covered with small red cherries. The cherries are good for making jam or jelly, but you may have to cover the shrubs with nets to keep the birds from eating the juicy cherries.

As long as Nanking cherries receive at least a half-day of direct sun and the soil drains well, they should thrive, though they'll produce more flowers and fruit in full sunlight. Keep those bees in mind, when deciding where to plant them. You don't want to disturb the bees whenever you enter or exit your house or garage.

Splash of color

PJM rhododendrons are the earliest of the azaleas and rhododendrons to bloom reliably in our climate. To call their clusters of large, vibrant lavender blossoms eye-catching is an understatement. (There are pinky lavender and pure pink cultivars also, but it's the intense lavender that is so arresting.)

PJM rhododendrons are evergreen, maintaining their foliage throughout the winter. They must be protected from drying winter winds and intense sun that can burn their leaves. The north or east side of the house usually works well. The soil must be quite acidic and highly organic, with excellent drainage. And because the plants' root system is shallow, you need to provide water throughout the growing season, even in autumn.

Mulch rhododendrons with 2 or 3 inches of pine needles, chipped oak leaves or other acidic mulch to prevent moisture loss and help insulate their roots from summer's heat and winter's cold.

Deb Brown is a garden writer and former extension horticulturist with the University of Minnesota. To ask her a gardening question, call 612-673-7793 and leave a message. She will answer questions in this column only.

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