When it comes to stunning, early-blooming trees, it’s hard to beat the star magnolia. Every March, it showers the landscape in a flush of bright white. For what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in stature. I love how the blossoms hang like fallen stars from its smooth, bare branches.
THE SMALL GARDEN’S MAGNOLIA
Now, even small gardens can have a magnolia! What’s more, star magnolia is slow-growing, so it won’t overwhelm your landscape. Topping out at a manageable 10 to 15 feet, it makes an excellent specimen tree while also providing a great backdrop to any mixed shrub border.
Yet for all that, the tree’s most valuable asset, in most people’s view, is its early spring blossoms. Typically flowering in early March, the star magnolia is lush with blooms when most other ornamentals are scarcely starting to bud. Moreover, the flowers are fragrant. Each is composed of more than a dozen ribbon-like petals. And some varieties boast as many as 30.
And while star magnolias are typically associated with white flowers, there are also a number of pink varieties. All are magnets for pollinators, which gives your other plants an early start on the season.
FOR STAR MAGNOLIAS, THE SHOW NEVER STOPS
But, for those who think star magnolias are all about spring, think again. The little trees offer fall and winter interest as well. In autumn, the foliage turns yellow, then bronze, providing an interesting complement to other fall colors.
And star magnolia’s twiggy, many-branched shape provides great winter interest. Colored a shiny, chestnut brown, the branches contrast handsomely with the tree’s smooth gray trunk, which slowly turns silver with age. As an added plus, the buds, appearing in late winter, are fat and fuzzy, just like pussy willows.
TOP STAR MAGNOLIA VARIETIES TO TRY
Ready to give star magnolia a try? Below are some the most popular cultivars that offer reliable, low-maintenance early spring color. Deciduous magnolias are best planted when dormant, typically in late fall.
‘Centennial’produces fragrant, waterlily-shaped blossoms in early to mid spring. The large white flowers often have a pink tinge at the base of the petals.
Magnolia stellata ‘Centennial’
‘Jane Platt’ produces double, scented, pale pink flowers with long, narrow petals in early to mid spring.
Magnolia stellata ‘Jane Platt’
‘Royal Star’ has pale pink buds that open in early spring to pure white flowers. In particular, this cultivar is known for its almost 5-inch (12 cm) wide flowers with up to 30 petals. ‘Royal Star’ blooms later than the species.
Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’
‘Rosea’ is a pink-flowered variety. It has a rounded shape and dense bushy habit. This cultivar flowers a month later than the species, or in late April.
Magnolia stellata ‘Rosea’
HOW AND WHERE TO PLANT
Star magnolia flowers are vulnerable to damage by late spring frosts, so it’s best to plant the trees in a sheltered spot. While they’ll do fine in full sun, they’ll perform best in morning sun with filtered shade in the afternoon. Generally, the more exposed the location, the earlier the flowers open. Like most plants, star magnolias prefer moist, well-drained soil.
Magnolia stellata really shines when viewed against a dark background. Site it in front of a stand of deep green arborvitae, a yew hedge or even a dark brick house and watch its flowers ‘pop.’ Daffodils with cream or white petals and yellow cups make excellent early-spring companions. Check out Narcissus ‘Sovereign’, ‘Golden Echo’ or the orange-cupped ‘Barrett Browning’ for a dramatic effect.
Want to see more photos of my gardens, including plant lists? Check out my instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring to fall.
Why wait for spring when you can enjoy it in late winter? Forcing flowering trees and shrubs to bloom is as easy as 1-2-3. All you have to do is cut a few branches, bring them indoors and follow the instructions below. Continue reading →
Lespedeza. Judging by the sound of it, you’d think it was an island off the coast of Italy. And the plant that bears its name certainly looks Mediterranean. Yet, I had never heard of this magnificent, fall-blooming shrub until a client of mine showed me a pair in her garden. Here’s why I’ve been a fan ever since. Continue reading →
In the plant world, spring flowers are in a class of their own. Bursting to life after a long, cold winter, they never fail to evoke feelings of happiness. And spring gardens bring hope this time of year, renewing our faith in life and everything growing.
Here are ten of my favorite spring flowers that will only grow more beautiful year after year.
Celebrated for their enormous blooms, these low-maintenance spring garden favorites will live on for generations. Peonies generally start blooming in late May and continue flowering well into June. The plants perform best in full sun. And many are fragrant, in particular the double white and pink varieties.
After the flowers fade, peonies’ deep green leaves stay looking good most of the summer. I use them to add bulk to my garden and to prop up other flowers. I cut them down to the ground in the fall.
Smaller and less showy than the bearded irises, these delicate plants produce a wealth of spring blooms on tall, elegant stems, usually in shades of blue or purple. The flowers are characterized by three petals on top and three below called falls. There are tiny varieties that grow to only about a foot and larger ones that can reach three feet tall. And their bright green grassy foliage adds a nice vertical dimension to the garden.
The botanical name aquilegia comes from the Latin ‘aquila’ meaning eagle; a reference to the flower’s petals that are said to resemble an eagle’s claw. Aquilegia’s beautiful nodding blooms come in dainty shades of purple, red, yellow, blue and white. A hardy perennial, columbine will grow in sun but prefers partial shade, especially in the afternoon. After a few years, it often dies out. But, it easily self-seeds.
One of the ‘freshest’ perennials around, Lady’s Mantle acts like a cool splash of water amidst all the colors of the spring garden. Easily grown in full sun to part shade, this low-growing perennial forms clumps of circular, lobed leaves crowned by tiny, star-shaped chartreuse flowers held aloft on 12″ to 18″ stems in late spring to early summer.
Tuck it under upright plants at the front of the border to disguise stems and dimension to your border.
Iris germanica, tall bearded iris
Tall and stately, bearded irises make a grand statement in the May garden. I go all-out and plant the deep purple varieties that provide great contrast with other pastel spring colors. Bearded irises grow from rhizomes, or sideways-growing stems, so they should never be buried completely in the ground. The plants need at least 6 hours of direct sun to flower.
Commonly known as blue false indigo, this beautiful native plant is growing in popularity. The upright perennial has 10″ to 12″ spikes of violet-blue, pea-shaped flowers that can last up to four weeks. Typically growing 3 to 4 feet tall, baptisia australis forms a large clump of bluish-green, clover like leaves that over time take on a shrub-like appearance. This makes it an excellent addition to the back of the border.
This front-of border perennial forms large mats of brilliantly-colored, star-shaped flowers in blues, pinks and purples. Plants have semi-evergreen, needle-like foliage that produce long, spreading stems. However, the plant tends to get woody over time, so best to cut out older sections to encourage new blooms.
If you’ve got part-shade, nothing says spring garden like Brunnera macrophylla, also known as false forget-me-not. The low-growing plant produces miniature, sky-blue flowers atop heart-shaped leaves in shades ranging from bright green to green with white or silver. The leaves form clumps that look great all season. For best impact, try silvered-leaved Jack Frost, or even larger-leaved Alexander’s Great.
A short-lived perennial known for its beautiful, tall flower spikes, verbascum adds an important vertical element to the spring garden. Easily grown in full sun to part shade (although it prefers full sun), the plant produces 2′ to 3′ flowering stems bearing long terminal spikes of 1′ diameter flowers in pastel shades of cream, lavender or rose. It easily self-seeds, but best to plan on replanting each year as an annual for best results. Tall silvery-gray leaves look great in the back of the border.
Not to be confused with annual geraniums, hardy geraniums (commonly known as Cranesbill) come in different shades of pinks, purples and blues often with deeper colored veins that look like whiskers. Most varieties start flowering in late spring and continue blooming well into the summer. The plant thrives in full sun at the front of the flower border.
My favorite is lavender-blue Rozanne. Other great varieties are crimson-throated, deep pink Patricia, unbelievable mauve-pink Miss Heidi, whose petals look like they were painted with butterfly wings and light pink with bronze tinted Ingwersen’s Variety.
Ornamental onion, Allium
A spectacular addition to any spring garden, alliums nonetheless take some advance planning. Their giant, onion-sized bulbs must be planted in late fall.
Come spring, most alliums make their appearance in late April when large florets of tongue-like foliage become visible on the soil surface. The foliage is followed by the emergence of tall, upright stems carrying a single round ‘flower.’ Composed of hundreds of tiny star-shaped blooms, the huge spheres tower over other flowers, injecting a playful note into the spring border.
My favorite variety is the impossibly large Globemaster, with deep purple Gladiator a close second. But don’t stop there; there are many varieties to choose from including the unusually shaped Drumstick, the fireworks-like Schubertii and the all-white Mount Everest.
Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful plants wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular multi-layered blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue reading →
My sister Cindy was born in late March. And every spring, when the forsythias bloomed, we celebrated with a family-coined phrase. My mother would say: These are for-Cynthia. My little sister would puff up with pride and it wasn’t long before she started gravitating towards the color yellow. I’ll never forget the canary carpet she insisted on having in the 70s.
Although I was secretly jealous that a flower bloomed especially for my sister, I grew to welcome the arrival of the sunny blooms. In my mind, forsythia will be forever tied to my sister, to March and the happy return of warm weather.
IT’S NOT THE BEST IN A MARTINI
It doesn’t taste good in tapenade either, but forsythia nevertheless belongs to the olive family, Oleaceae. Along with other showy members like lilac and jasmine, it is grown primarily for its bright, fragrant flowers. There are about 11 species, most of which are native to eastern Asia with one hailing from southeastern Europe.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE FLOWERS
Forsythia’s early yellow blossoms are undoubtedly the most appealing feature of this multi-branched, deciduous shrub. Developing before the leaves, they are produced in brilliant clusters on the previous year’s wood.
Forsythias flower on last year’s wood
Ranging in color from pale to deep yellow, each flower is composed of four elongated petals.
The flowers are followed by bright green foliage that turns shades of yellow or purple in the fall.
As a garden designer, I am often asked this question. The answer usually lies in when the shrub was pruned. Since forsythias produce their buds on the prior year’s growth, it’s imperative to prune them right after they flower. Otherwise, you risk cutting off the majority of next year’s blooms.
Less frequently, prolonged periods of unusually cold weather can negatively affect flowering for the coming season.
If you prune forsythia too late, you’ll cut off next year’s blooms
Forsythias are fast-growing. When left untended, they easily become leggy. Don’t hesitate to be aggressive when pruning. (I hack mine back by a third every spring right after flowering.) The shrubs will quickly bounce back and push out new growth the following year.
WHAT ARE THE BEST VARIETIES AVAILABLE TODAY?
Most of today’s modern varieties are the result of a cross between two Chinese species, Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima. These were the first species introduced to Western gardens from the Far East.
Forsythia suspensa, commonly called Weeping forsythia, is a popular plant all on its own and is still widely grown for its large size and pale yellow flowers. Tough and reliable, the shrub typically grows to 8- to 10-feet. Its characteristic weeping habit makes it an excellent hedging plant. It also looks great on a slope or hanging over a wall where its drooping blooms can be fully appreciated.
That being said, it is the hybrid of Forsythia suspensa and Forsythia viridissima,Forsythia x intermedia, that is behind many of the most popular cultivars today. Also known as Golden Bells, or Border forsythia, the medium-sized, upright shrub has the bright yellow flowers most commonly associated with the species. The cross has also produced many new varieties, including a number of lower-maintenance, more compact forms.
If you’re looking to create a hedge, I recommend using the larger, deep-yellow cultivars Arnold Giant, Lynwood Gold, Karl Sax and Spectabilis. They’ll happily grow unimpeded to 8- to 10-feet or more. The dwarf varieties Arnold Dwarfand Gold Tide are two popular forms that grow to just 3 feet and are often used as groundcovers. However, in my experience, Gold Tide likes to be wider than tall. So beware if you’re combining it with other flowers.
Golden Peep and Goldilocks are small and have compact branching. They look great close up to the house or in the flower border. They also make great container plants. The slightly larger Sunrise is a great choice if you’re looking for fall leaf color.
FORSYTHIA LIKES TO PUT DOWN ROOTS
Where its branches touch the ground, forsythia will quickly take root. This is great for mass plantings, but not so desirable in a garden. Most springs, I chop off these offspring to keep things under control.
BEST BLOOMS IN FULL SUN
For the best blooms, plant Forsythia x intermedia varieties in full sun to part shade. The shrubs need a minimum of four hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight each day to flower. Like most plants, forsythias perform best in well-drained soil.
We all see color differently, but it’s rare to find someone who can’t see white. That’s because white, like sunlight, is composed of all the colors of the visible spectrum. In the garden, white plants reflect light, instantly brightening a shady spot. And an all-white garden is a symphony of light, where flowers and foliage join together in a succession of harmonious arrangements. Continue reading →
Witch hazel, or Hamamelis, may be best known for its therapeutic properties. But, it’s also a star of the late winter garden. And right now in eastern North America, the shrub’s sweet, citrusy scent is drifting across many a landscape. For me, there’s nothing quite like the appearance of witch hazel’s fragrant, shaggy flowers to signal spring is finally on its way.
ABOUT WITCH HAZEL
Witch hazel is native to both North America and Asia. It is composed of four main species. In North America, the two native species are Hamamelis virginiana and Hamamelis vernalis. H. virginiana grows in the eastern part of the United States and blooms in late fall. And H. vernalis grows in the southern and central part of the country and blooms in late winter.
In Asia, on the other hand, the two native species are Hamamelis japonicaand Hamamelis mollis. Both are winter-blooming.
Recently, a cross between the two species has produced the hybrid Hamamelis x intermedia. More manageable in size, it blooms anywhere from late February to March.
FRAGRANT FLOWERS AND BRILLIANT FALL FOLIAGE
There’s so much to love about this winter-blooming plant. Most species grow to about 15 to 25 feet; the perfect size for a garden corner. Some varieties have a loose, vase-like form while others are more rounded and compact. And in the fall, the shrubs’ smooth, oval leaves turn brilliant shades of red or yellow.
What’s more, when the brown fruits rupture in late summer or early fall, they can fling a single black seed as far as 30 feet into the distance!
But at the end of the day, the ‘wow factor’ for me lies in witch hazel’s unusual, spidery flowers. Ribbon-like in appearance, they slowly unfold on bare branches in clusters of bright yellow, deep red or occasionally burnt orange. They often last for up to a month.
In Delaware where I grew up, there was a magnificent pair of hamamelis that flanked a corner of the visitor’s pavilion at Winterthur Gardens. Beginning in late February, their buds would begin to swell, revealing slivers of the first dazzling flowers. There was a bright yellow variety and a wine-colored one. And when the shrubs finally reached full bloom, their crisscrossed branches wove a brilliant tapestry of late winter color.
THE BEST VARIETIES FOR YOUR GARDEN
Ready to give witch hazel a try? Here’s a rundown of the four main species and some of their hybrids and cultivars.
Hamamelis x intermedia
These lovely witch hazel varieties are loosely branched and medium-sized. Growing to about 12 feet tall and wide, they have oval leaves that turn yellow in the fall. From late February to March, twisted yellow, red or orange flowers appear on bare stems ahead of spring foliage. Popular cultivars include: Arnold’s Promise, Diane, Jelena, and Pallida.
H. x intermedia
This variety produces flowers that are typically bright yellow, although some cultivars produce reddish ones. The shrub’s leaves turn yellow in the fall. Popular cultivars include Little Suzie and Harvest Moon.
Intensely fragrant with crooked stems and an open crown, this shrub’s flowers range in color from yellow to dark red. The petals roll up on cold days. Most noteworthy cultivars include Autumn Embers, Lombart’s Weeping and Sandra.
More delicate than the other witch hazel varieties, hamamelis japonica can’t handle extremes in cold weather. As a result, the shrubs are less hardy than other cultivars. In its native Japan, the shrub’s pale yellow, red and purple flowers are prized in tea ceremonies.
This is a shrub that needs full sun to flower well. That being said, it will do OK in dappled shade. The most important thing is to give all witch hazel varieties well-drained, loamy, acidic soil. Most species also need a chilling period of at least 2 months with temperatures below 45 degrees to ensure flowering.
In addition to its aesthetic properties, hamamelis extract can be used externally to treat swelling and inflammation. Some say it also helps treat insect bites and poison ivy. Witch hazel’s therapeutic properties gained widespread acceptance in the United States in 1866. This followed the first commercial introduction of an astringent made from its bark and leaves by Thomas Newton Dickinson.