Early-Flowering Shrubs

by Alec McCarter  May 2002


Early-flowering shrubs and companion plants are once again rewarding us for giving them space and care in our garden.  The woods and fields are responding to the warmth and light as our northern world comes back once more into the lengthening days.


Witch hazels, starting before Christmas were accompanied by snowdrops and an underplanting of Aconites.  Planted under a huge vase-shaped Hamamelis x ‘Pallida’, Aconites made a large bright yellow cover for the dark earth, almost exactly matching the yellow of the fine ribbons of the hazel’s bloom.  Now yellow crocuses have taken over from these earlier-flowering plants and are reflecting the greenish-yellow masses of tiny flowers of Cornus mas.


Cascades of pearly flowers of Pieris tumble from the leafy branches almost to the ground.  Both the Pieris and a fragrant Chinese honeysuckle have spring-decreed replication on their non-existent planty minds or are merely playing out the coded messages that evolution has written into their genes.  Take whichever explanation you prefer.  These shrubs have defied the light frosts of recent weeks and advertise their reproductive readiness by perfuming the air in the hopes, perhaps, of attracting hungry insects to carry their pollen to another place.  There is a minuscule chance that the pollen will not be wasted but it is the way for the selfish chromosomes to perpetuate themselves.


At the south-west corner of the house a sprawling Acer japonica of the highly dissected, purple-leaf variety is a mass of attractively contorted bare branches.  Under them yellow crocuses lighten the shade.  At the drip-line of the maple, fully-double snowdrops have bloomed from early January to mid-March.  The bulbs of these plants have bloomed and spread year after year.  The maple leafs out late enough to allow the bulbs to mature and the fallen leaves seem to provide all the nourishment that they need.  Past the ends of the branches there is strong sunlight.  Deep blue, scented English violets provide a pleasant transition to the lawn beyond.


Cornus mas, now a mass of yellow, is like a cloud floating at head-level.  Nearby, Rhododendron dauricum is in flower.  I have cut some branches to take to my wife.  They, and branches of Cornus mas have withstood the warmth of her room and have lasted in bloom for nearly a week without drooping or dropping.  The combination of the soft-yellow, fluffy bunches of tiny petals is surprisingly effective in an arrangement with the pink, flaring flowers of dauricum.


While they were blooming, witch-hazels ‘Pallida’, ‘Copper Beauty’ and ‘Diane’, perfumed the air with delicious scent – familiar from long-ago days as that of a lotion that barbers used to lay down the unruly hair of a lively, young boy.


There are two more witch-hazels in the garden behind the house – but they are not blooming.  It remains to be seen whether or not they are dead.  If they have died, it was because last summer they did not get enough water to sustain them.  Those at the front of the house are in more shade and in soil that is more retentive of water.  They have performed magnificently.


A Corylopsis pauciflora, now about a meter high and twice as wide, is underplanted with dark-red Cowichan strain of Primula julianae, and a few brilliantly blue Chionodoxa sardensis.  Later, masses of blue Tritelia uniflora will join them.  This is a very effective combination of yellows, blues and reds which is repeated every year and is eagerly awaited by us.  Why the shrub should have the name ‘pauciflora’ is beyond my understanding because there is no paucity of bloom!


The earliest flowers of Camellias can now be seen in gardens nearer the sea than ours.  It is a pity that so often the flowers are blasted by late frosts.  And I note that the Indian plums (Oemleria cerasiformis) near the south margin of the University gardens, are blooming and producing a mist of green under the protecting oaks.  Once again, Victoria’s streets are lined with magenta flowering plums, and small trees still bearing the orange fruits that have lasted all winter, are now replacing them with swelling buds.  Spring is here again and the flower count has once more produced its boast of billions.  We live in a blessed land.


Reprinted from University of Victoria Finnerty Gardens Newsletter January 2002