The first flowers of spring are beginning to open, a sure sign that spring is on its way. In reality it’s the last flowers of winter that are beginning to open, but that doesn’t sound quite as warm and cheerful.
Generally, the first plants that begin to bloom are what we call the woody plants, or the trees and shrubs. Many bloom well before the first official day of spring. They are typically followed by the beautiful and colorful spring flowering bulbs. Trailing the pack in bloom sequence are the perennial flowers that will begin blooming one by one as March fades into April, then May.
Perennial flowers have remained one of the most popular groups of gardening plants. But the first major group of plants I fell in love with and began to study in college was the woody plants. I can remember keeping a bloom sequence chart, writing down the plant name and the date I first observed any plant in flower. We were supposed to begin it in the middle of January, but I didn’t begin my chart until around the middle of February because I naively thought nothing bloomed before then. Turns out I had missed out on quite a few things.
One of the earliest is a beautiful evergreen plant for the shade, Mahonia bealei, leatherleaf mahonia. This thorny, shrubby plant has slightly glossy green leaves year-round. Typically in late January, but more commonly in February, you will begin to see the yellow clusters of flowers begin to show their color. This long-blooming shrub can grow 6 to 10 feet tall, and I have observed them in bloom for more than a month, well into March. The flowers are followed by beautiful green fruit berries, which hang in a cluster much like a grape cluster. The berries change color to dark blue in early June and remain all summer.
Another winter bloomer, Chaenomeles speciosa, flowering quince, is considered a gangly shrubby mess for the majority of the year. I can remember being toured around a woman’s garden early one March and she stopped to tell me about the flowering quince that was in bloom. The flowers were white and it was a smaller plant than most quince I had observed. She described its beauty with such grace and love that I fell in love with this plant right then and there. The quince in her garden was ‘Jet Trail,’ which grows only 3 or so feet tall. They are much easier to handle in a small garden as most quince grow 6 to 10 feet tall or taller. This old-fashioned plant is typically seen with flower colors that are pink to apricot, and begin blooming in late February or early March in Kentucky.
One of the first trees to bloom in the winter is Prunus mume, Japanese apricot. The Chinese considered the flowers a symbol of winter and the Japanese considered the flowers a symbol of spring. This flower is also a symbol of resilience and perseverance, and can be seen frequently in Japanese and Chinese art. The Japanese apricot is not a common tree to our area but it can be found on occasion. The flowers can be white or pink, depending on the cultivar. Because of the time of year that this tree flowers, unexpected rough weather or severe cold at full bloom can severely damage the flowers. Perhaps it is our unpredictable weather that keeps this tree from popularity in our area.