Extension Educator, Horticulture
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 of crayons.
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 strap-like 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 plant 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 early-flowering cultivars. These witchhazels prefer a moist, well-drained soil but are pretty adaptable. '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 an appealing shrub with horizontal branching, coppery colored flowers and orange to red fall color. The interesting factoid about witchhazels 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.
Common witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana, is also a native shrub; however, its fragrant yellow flowers usually appear in November.
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, is a pleasantly subdued 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 great 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 is an oddly named 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 get a soil test to determine just how much sulfur to add. Fothergilla makes an attractive partner with rhododendrons in partially shaded areas. 'Blue Mist' has delightful blue green leaves; however, its fall color can be disappointing. Large fothergilla, Fothergilla major, can grow 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.