Spring shrubs, small trees put on a show

  • Sophie Burdette, 5, of Falls Church, Va., walks through an array of blooming forsythia and magnolia near the Jefferson Memorial in Washington on the first day of spring. Jacquelyn Martin via AP file

Saturday, May 20, 2017

This spring has been the most colorful and flower-filled in recent memory. Last spring’s late freeze damaged most of the buds on the fruit trees, the forsythia bushes spit out only a few blossoms and the magnolia buds turned brown before they could open. Late snows ruined the daffodils that were just starting to bloom. All-in-all, a disappointing start to the growing season.

This year has been completely the opposite! There is a riot of blossom everywhere you look. The street trees in Concord have been especially beautiful this year. Here are few of the shrubs and small trees which are putting on quite a show. Many are Cary Award winners, which mean they have been recognized as outstanding plants for New England gardens. If you didn’t take part in Plant Something N.H. Day on Saturday, it is not too late to add a new flowering tree or shrub to your landscape.

Shadblow (Amelianchiercanadensis), also called serviceberry or Juneberry, has white blossoms in May followed by bluish berries in July. It grows into an attractive small tree 10 to 20 feet tall with nice fall color.

Rhododendrons are exceptionally hardy and offer lots of bright color. Olga Mezitt is the companion to the popular PJM rhodie, in fact, both are named for the founders of Weston Nursery, Peter and Olga Mezitt. Olga is a Cary Award winner with small evergreen leaves and showy, bright pink flowers. PJM also has small evergreen leaves but its flowers are a darker purple.

“Yaks” (R. yakushimanum) are a very hardy, slow-growing species of rhododendron from Yakushima Island off Japan. Their compact growth habit and full rounded trusses of bell-shaped flowers make them ideal for a small garden. Hybrid yaks Ken Janeck (a Cary Award winner) and Mist Maiden are both low growers with pale pink flowers that fade to white.

An extra early blooming rhododendron (R. mucronulatum) is often mistaken for a deciduous azalea since its purplish-pink flowers appear before the leaves emerge. It blossoms at the same time as forsythia, making a striking color combination. The hybrid Cornell Pink grows to be 4 to 6 feet tall and its blossoms are a true pink color. To tell a rhododendron from an azalea just count the stamens in the center of each blossom – azaleas have only 5 stamens while rhodies have 10 or more.

Speaking of azaleas, some of the best and most fragrant, spring-flowering azaleas are the native species including Pinkshell azalea (R. vaseyi), Roseshell (R. prinophyllum) and Flame azalea (R. calendulaceum).

For hybrid azaleas look for the Northern Lights series from Minnesota which are hardy to minus 40 degrees. The flowers are small but fragrant and come in gorgeous colors like yellow, pale orange, lilac, white, and tangerine. They can grow to six feet tall, so plan accordingly when planting.

Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) contributes its yellow flowers about the same time the daffodils bloom. Look for Golden Glory or yellow-leaved Aurea; both are Cary winners. They can grow to be 20 feet tall and wide.

Magnolias (M. stellata) and (M. x loebneri) are reliable spring bloomers. Centennial is a double star magnolia that was developed and named for Arnold Arboretum’s 100th anniversary. A Cary Award winner, it has 3- to 4-inch wide white flowers with a slight pink blush. Royal Star is another fragrant double star and Ballerina also has white blossoms tinged faintly with pink. Dr. Merrill has fragrant strap-like white blossoms and the later blooming (and award winning) Leonard Messel has pink petals. Want yellow flowers? Look for Cary winner Elizabeth or Yellow Bird, a hybrid developed at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Crabapples offer a range of blossom colors from every shade of pink to white. They come in a range of sizes too, from tiny 8-foot-tall Tina to 40-foot-tall Dolgo. Cary winner Donald Wyman was a chance seedling discovered at Arnold Arboretum. It grows about 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide and bears dark pink buds that open into white flowers.

Lilacs are everyone’s favorite. The most fragrant ones are descended from the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris, a native of Eastern Europe. There are twenty other species of lilacs native to Asian nations such as Korea and China. Some are heavily scented while others have little or no fragrance so, if possible, sniff before you buy. The seven “official” colors are white, violet, pink, blue, lavender, purple, and magenta and the blossoms can have single or double florets. If you have an outstanding lilac in bloom take some pictures and send them in to the N.H. Lilac Photo Contest. For more information go to nh.gov/lilacs/contest.

Viburnums have suffered from attack by the viburnum leaf beetle but there are some varieties that they leave alone such as Koreanspice (Viburnum carlesii) which has heavenly smelling blossoms and Doublefile viburnum (V. plicatum). Unfortunately, the native varieties that we would prefer to grow are the ones the beetles seem to like the most.

Fothergilla is in the same family as witch hazel but blooms later in May. It has honey-scented, white, bottle-brush flowers that emerge before the leaves. A Cary winner, it also has beautiful autumn color making it a three season plant.

Andromeda (Pieris japonica) is an evergreen shrub in the Heath family. It bears sweetly scented, bell-like white flowers. Hybrid Brouwer’s Beauty is a Cary winner that offers four seasons of interest.

If you want your flowering trees and shrubs to do double duty, look for those with edible fruits such as blueberries, apples, cherries, peaches, pears and plums.

For more ideas on flowering trees and shrubs to add to your garden look at the Cary Award website, caryaward.com, or check out the book The Best Plants for New Hampshire Gardens and Landscapes put out by the N.H. Plant Growers’ Association and UNH Cooperative Extension. It is available at most libraries. Happy planting!