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Early Flowering Trees to Break Winter's Spell

by Taimi Anderson

Consider the miracle of the January bloom of the Japanese apricot (Prunus mume). To see this tree in full flower in the depth of winter, its delicate blossoms sometimes holding a soft mantle of snow, brings the happy realization that spring here arrives already in winter and continues with brief interruptions right through these

Japanese apricot blossoms in a gentle January snow.
Winter here in the South is an off-and-on again affair. Spells of warmer weather alternate with freezes, sometimes with bitter cold, ice, and snow. Gardeners might despair at these vexing turns in the weather if it were not for the cherished blooms of certain stalwart trees, shrubs, and perennials. They are the harbingers of spring, of hope, and reassurance even during the cruelest of winter days.

coldest months of the year. Starting with the Japanese apricot, a progression of flowering trees take southern gardens right through February and into March, to the official beginning of spring in the South: the blooming of dogwoods, flowering cherries, crabapples, wisteria, and a multitude of azaleas.

This winter, with colder temperatures than in recent years, the Japanese flowering apricot has been reticent to open its blossoms; the buds are full and round, ready to unfold, if given some days of dependable warmth. In other years, my ‘Peggy Clarke’ apricot has been in full bloom in January with its lovely, rosy, cup-shaped blossoms holding clusters of long, golden stamens, sending a delectable sweet scent into the winter air. A delicate white-flowered form, ‘White Christmas’, opens its first blossoms around the holidays and, depending on the temperature, continues blooming off-and-on right through the winter months. Hard freezes will damage the flowers, but there are always new buds ready to open during spells of milder winter weather.

The fragrant rosy, cup-shaped blossoms of Prunus mume 'Peggy Clark' display long golden stamens and grace the early winter garden.
In ancient Chinese tradition, the flowering apricot joins the gnarled pine and the pliable bamboo as one of the three friends of winter, bravely opening its blossoms in the cold, and promising hope, renewal, and the return of spring. The Japanese have developed nearly 400 different cultivars of this apricot. There are single and double-flowered forms with blossoms ranging
in color from white-to-pale-pink-to-rose, and from dark-pink to a glowing, rosy-red. The flowers are fragrant, from a lemony to sweetly-spicy scent, which is an added bonus with winter-blooming plants. This small tree grows up to 25 feet in height, usually with a rounded form, but in some cultivars narrow or upright in habit, or with a gracefully weeping form, such as that of ‘W. B. Clarke’, with double, soft-pink blossoms covering the trailing branches. Other popular cultivars are ‘Alba’, with single white flowers, and ‘Albo-Plena’, with double white flowers, ‘Bonita’, with semi-double deep-rose blossoms, ‘Dawn’, with large, soft-pink flowers, and ‘Rosemary Clarke’, a very early bloomer with large, white, semi-double blossoms.

By the time the Japanese apricot flowers begin to fade, the Okame Cherry (Prunus ‘Okame’) carries on the flowering sequence, opening delicate, clear-pink blossoms, which virtually cover the entire tree, usually from the end of February into the beginning of March. Its brilliant flower color is a welcome spark among the gray-and-brown, winter-bare stems and branches of deciduous trees and shrubs, and gives a bright glow when seen against a dark background of somber evergreens. It makes a pleasant scene with the prolific daffodil, ‘Ice Follies’, with its cream-colored perianth and pale-yellow, flared cup, and underplantings of blue scilla or carpets of ‘Georgia Blue’ veronica.

Defying the threat of freezing weather, the beautiful starry-white blossoms of star magnolia open in February, and are a welcome sight during mild winter days.
The precocious deciduous magnolias are early bloomers here in the Piedmont of North Carolina. What a thrilling sight to see the luminous white blossoms of star magnolia (Magnolia stellata) open on a bright February morning, knowing full well that an overnight cold snap could turn these exquisite blossoms into a limp, brown mess. Hope springs eternal
for gardeners, and the visionof these glorious flowers on a winter’s day is worth all the risk. Star magnolia, planted as a bushy shrub, can be grown into an attractive, multiple-stem, small tree, used as a specimen planted in among a shrub border, or effectively placed in front of evergreens to let the starry, white flowers sparkle against the dark background. The variety, ‘Centennial’ opens a little later in the season with ribbon-like petals suffused with pale-pink.

One of the most magnificent magnolias is the Yulan (Magnolia denudata), coming into bloom early, and flowering through February with incredible, pure-white, fragrant blossoms. It is breathtaking to see a mature tree in full bloom, and here too, gardeners must hold their breath lest a cold snap wipe out the entire glorious show. The flowering of deciduous magnolias extends through March with the ever-popular saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) opening its large, saucer-shaped blossoms of a blushing, purplish-rose, or the lovely Magnolia x loebneri ‘Ballerina’, with white petals faintly tinged with pink, or the vigorous M. x loebneri ‘Merrill’, with its profusion of exquisite, fragrant, pure-white blooms.

Then, in the beginning of March, the ubiquitous Bradford pears (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’) come into bloom; hundreds and hundreds of them lining roadways, shopping center parking lots, leading along avenues and entrances into new developments, encasing the world in billowing white clouds of blossoms. What a sight! And yet, gardeners are cautioned that the Bradford pear’s awkward branching structure makes it prone to break apart in storms or with winter ice; its form is too defined in its lollypop shape, and besides, everyone is planting it everywhere. Newer cultivars have come on the market, such as ‘Aristocrat’, or ‘Chanticleer’ which are more upright in form with improved branching structure. But these recommended varieties do not fit the bill for gardeners who look for the Bradford’s unique, rounded shape, relish its profuse and lovely spring bloom, admire its clean, glossy summer foliage, and watch it turn brilliant fall colors when all other trees have already shed their leaves. I have planted a Bradford pear in my garden so that I can admire this tree for its attractive features in all four seasons.

All these early-blooming trees are of Asian origin. Our own native flowering trees bide their time and wait for more moderate temperatures. However, by the beginning of March, there is no more welcome sight than the tiny, crimson flowers opening on red maples, creating a reddish haze among the soft greens of loblolly pines. Further south, this show arrives earlier and is enhanced by the golden-yellow, trailing blossoms of Carolina jessamine. The clusters of small flowers soon form the red, dangling, seed pods, or samaras, seen against silvery-gray stems and branches, and by then we know with certainty that spring is on its way.

The graceful serviceberry (Amelanchier) in full bloom early in the season.
By mid-March, the lovely serviceberries or juneberries (Amelanchier canadensis or A. laevis) open their delicate white blossoms along woodland edges. If you have this native beauty growing on your wooded property, treasure it, for its merits go beyond bloom to provide tasty fruit for birds and for you too (if you can get there
before the birds). Fall color is a brilliant yellow, orange, and red, and its grayish stems add bright accents to somber, winter hues. This small, multi-stem tree makes an exceptional ornamental for the garden. Selections of the hybrid Amelanchier x grandiflora, such as ‘Autumn Brilliance’, ‘Princess Diana’, or ‘Ballerina’ offer delicate, white starry flowers followed by bright-red fruit which turns blue-black when ripe, stunning in winter with the branches clearly etched against a dark background of hemlocks or cedars.

When the serviceberry blossoms fade, the show in native woodlands continues with the airy sprays of purplish-pink redbud blossoms. Aside from the common forms of the species, these lovely spring-bloomers also include some interesting cultivars: ‘Forest Pansy’ is a variety with heart-shaped leaves which emerge deep-purple and hold this striking color until the heat of summer sets in, after which the leaves turn to a muted green; ‘Oklahoma’ has deep-rosy-to-magenta-hued blossoms followed by handsome, rounded, leathery and very glossy leaves; ‘White Texas’ has creamy-white blossoms and shiny leaves; and the variety ‘Alba’ also displays white blossoms.

Close on the heels of the redbuds comes the glory of southern gardens, the beautiful native dogwood. Its white blossoms (actually bracts surrounding small insignificant flowers) brighten spring gardens and shimmer seductively among the still leafless-trees of the forest. And with the flowering of the dogwoods comes the sure sign that the vernal equinox has passed, spring has arrived, and a full crescendo of flowering is in progress, with graceful flowering cherries, crabapples, and a complement of myriads of colorful azaleas. Spring in the South is wondrous and beautiful indeed.


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Glossary Terms

Related Plants
Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’ )
Pink Star Magnolia (Magnolia x loebneri ‘Leonard Messel’ )
Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana )
Shadblow Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis )
Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata )

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