Extension Educator, Horticulture
A novice gardener is like a kid with a box of eight crayons. You can still draw a lot of things with eight crayons but marigolds end up the same color as sunflowers and forget about coloring a winter sunset. However, a more experienced gardener has the box of 64 or even 120 crayons. Remember that feeling as a kid when you moved up to the big box of crayons. Now you could draw your world in periwinkle blue instead of just plain 'ole blue. Becoming an experienced gardener is just getting familiar with the crayons in the big box.
Forsythia comes in the box of eight crayons. Most people know them and everybody has one. It certainly is nice to see their early yellow flowers but the rest of the year they are a just a blob of green. Oh to learn and savor the differences between lemon yellow, buttercup yellow and golden yellow.
Here are some early flowering shrubs found in the big box.
Vernal Witchhazel, Hamamelis vernalis, is a native shrub whose fragrant yellow flowers can appear quite early in February or even January. The early flowering means no leaves to hide the interesting flowers with straplike petals. The dark green leaves turn a vivid yellow in fall. This witchhazel can reach 10 feet tall and is probably best planted in mass or in a naturalized area. Woody plants expert Michael Dirr describes it as a "tough plant with an alley cat tenacity."
A Chinese and Japanese witchhazel hybrid, Hamamelis x intermedia, offers several attractive culitvars. These witchhazels would prefer a moist, well-drained soil but are pretty adaptable to even partial shade. 'Arnold Promise' has been around for years and remains one of the best cultivars. It has bright yellow flowers and yellow to orange fall color. 'Arnold Promise'can get to 20 feet tall. 'Jelena' is a nice shrub with horizontal branching, coppery colored flowers and orange to red fall color. The interesting thing about witchhazel is the flower color matches the fall color. A yellow flowering witchhazel equals yellow fall color. The red varieties give a red fall show. 'Pallida'offers extra early yellow flowers and a smaller shrub size.
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is a nice but underused native shrub. It blooms in early April with greenish yellow flowers along the stems. In sun it is rather densely branched but in shade it opens to a pleasing airy habit. It is very nice naturalized in moist semi-shaded sites. Spicebush is aptly named because the bruised stems give off a spicy fragrance. Fall color is a clear yellow. The female plants will also produce an attractive red berry in September and October.
Fothergilla may have an odd name but is a 3-5 feet tall shrub with all season appeal. Forthergilla gardenii has bottle brush creamy white flowers in late April into May before or as the leaves are developing. The honey scented flowers can last two weeks. The blue green leaves turn a marvelous orange-red in fall.
Fothergilla does best in moist, high organic matter and slightly acidic soil. Before planting add plenty of compost and adequate sulfur to lower the pH. Ideally it would be best to get a soil test to determine just how much sulfur to add. Fothergilla make an attractive partner with rhododendrons.
Fothergilla will take partial shade but as with most plants it will flower and color better in fall in full sun. 'Blue Mist' has wonderful blue green leaves but it tends not to color as well in the fall. Large fothergilla, Fothergilla major, can get 5 to 6 feet tall and offers a magnificent cultivar of 'Mount Airy' with its consistent yellow, orange and red fall color.
Move up to the plants in the big crayon box.