After the long, dark winter months, the first flowers in spring are some of the most eagerly awaited in the garden. From early-flowering perennials to spring flowering shrubs, there are lots of hardy plants that burst into colour from March through to May. Throw in some spring flowering bulbs and you’ll have a brilliant display that returns year after year.
For inspiration, here are Sue Sanderson’s ten favourite hardy plants for spring colour:
The frosty white blossom of Amelanchier lamarkii appears in mid spring alongside bronze-tinted young foliage. Amelanchier is at its best in spring but deserves a prominent spot for its year round performance. This attractive deciduous tree has gently arching branches that create wonderful dappled shade in summer. The autumn foliage is spectacular in shades of rust and burnt orange. This hardworking species is an ideal specimen tree for small and medium gardens, giving plenty of interest without making a nuisance of itself.
A 'must-have' perennial for shaded borders! The silvery, heart shaped leaves of Brunnera have a metallic sheen that literally sparkles. Although mainly grown for its foliage, this shimmering plant also bears charming sprays of sky-blue flowers that make a pretty display from April to May. Surprisingly tough, it makes excellent ground cover that's perfect for illuminating a shaded corner. It's a mystery why Brunnera is not more widely grown as this hardy perennial really does have it all.
This vigorous climber is a cottage garden classic. Clematis montana 'Mayleen' can be found cascading over walls and fences in a torrent of bloom each spring. Throughout May, the prolific pink blooms smother the foliage which is often bronze-tinted when young. Easily growing to 10m (33'), this is not a climber for small spaces - but train it through the canopy of a tree and you will be mesmerised! Better yet, it's a Group 1 clematis needing minimal pruning.
Always a childhood favourite for me - Lamprocapnos spectabilis is quite intriguing. The rose-pink, heart shaped flowers dangle enticingly from elegant arching stems, giving this plant its common name of Bleeding Heart. The foliage is finely dissected, forming pleasing, neat clumps which quietly die back after flowering, making space for more boisterous perennials. Formerly known as Dicentra, this charming plant makes a fine focal point for spring borders, enjoying a reliably moist soil and lightly shaded conditions.
Aubrieta is one of those plants that goes unnoticed for most of the year - but from March to May it really packs a punch! Dense mats of semi-evergreen foliage are literally smothered in bloom, attracting pollinating insects from miles around. Aubrieta is a fuss-free hardy perennial that loves nothing more than cascading from a wall crevice or carpeting rockeries. It will happily grow in sun or semi-shade, on virtually any well drained soil - even exposed or windy sites.
Heathers have rather fallen from favour in recent years having been somewhat 'overdone’ during the 70s. It's a great shame as they have much to offer the garden in springtime. These unassuming little evergreens are tough as old boots, enduring the vagaries of British weather with admirable tenacity, often flowering from winter right through to spring. Although some require an acid soil, there are plenty that cope away from ericaceous conditions such as Erica darleyensis. Heathers are perfect choices for rockeries and winter containers, or grown in large swathes, carpeting exposed banks and beds.
I'm a great fan of euphorbia, and this one is a real 'show-off' in spring. The chartreuse green flowers of Euphorbia martinii 'Walberton's Ruby Glow' are borne on beetroot red stems above a rounded mound of ruby-red foliage. This vibrant perennial is drought-tolerant once established, and copes well with dry, sunny spots and poor soil. As winter approaches the evergreen foliage darkens to purple. Remaining nicely compact, this euphorbia looks great in container displays as well as borders.
For most of the year Forsythia is unremarkable, its upright stems cloaked in simple, green leaves that allow it to blend into the background. Yet in March and April this deciduous shrub literally glows with bright golden yellow flowers that smother the naked stems. Hardy and resilient, these tough shrubs will grow almost anywhere except for very wet, poorly drained conditions. Forsythias bloom on old wood, so pruning is best carried out immediately after flowering to ensure plenty of time to produce new shoots to carry next years flowers.
There's something quite elegant about Magnolias, and the stellata cultivars are some of the most reliable, being less prone to frost damage. The spidery white flowers open from velvety buds, covering the naked stems from March, and gently wafting their perfume on the cool spring air. Unlike some species Magnolia stellata is quite compact with a slow growth rate, making it suitable for growing in modestly sized gardens or even in containers. Newly planted Magnolias often spend their first two years establishing at the expense of the flowers, but they're well worth the wait, and a well grown Magnolia is a sight to behold!
Cherry blossom is one of the most anticipated signs of spring - in Asia they hold great festivals in its honour! We often think of large Cherry trees, smothered in pink-white blossom. But Prunus 'Kojo-no-mai' is a neatly compact shrub that reaches just 2.5m (8') at maturity. The bare stems are strangely twisted making fascinating shapes in winter. By spring the branches are crowded with pink tinged cherry flowers that flutter like confetti on the breeze. The foliage that follows is equally showy in autumn, turning crimson and scarlet. This hard working shrub has something for every season in your garden!
We hope this has given you plenty of inspiration for early colour. For information and advice on adding spring flowering bulbs to the mix, visit our dedicated hub page for even more ideas. Want to extend your garden’s interest at the latter end of the year too? See our top ten hardy plants for autumn and keep the colour coming for as long as possible.