In the warmer parts of Canada spring has already sprung, but in colder regions, it’s still a few weeks away. My own Zone 5 garden in south-central Ontario (about 62 miles/100 km north of Toronto) lies somewhere between the two extremes. The minor bulbs of early spring are in flower, as are the hellebores. Early daffodils are about to pop and magnolia, forsythia and lilac are in heavy bud after a milder than usual winter.
Having gardened in the same spot for 12 years, I have a good idea of what blooms when. But what blooms first in my garden may be entirely different from what flowers first in yours. Much depends on hardiness zones, soil types, rainfall patterns and general topography. Naturally inquisitive, I’m curious about what gardeners in different regions look forward to at this time of year. In other words, which plant’s petals spell spring for you?
My calendar of bloom always begins with hybrid witch hazels in late winter. The result of crosses between Japanese Hamamelis japonica and Chinese H. mollis, this race of early-blooming shrubs is known botanically as H. ×intermedia. Generally hardy to Zone 5 is the yellow-flowered ‘Pallida’ and copper-red ‘Diane’, two of the hardiest, which I grow. They invariably begin to flower while there’s still snow on the ground, sometime between the end of February and mid-March.
Witch hazels like to be sited in a full sun to part-shade location (I find an eastern exposure works well) in good garden loam. They’re generally disease and pest free although mildew may be a problem in dry summers; always water plants during droughty periods. Hybrid witch hazel cultivars are usually grafted onto native H. virginiana rootstock, so be on the lookout for vigorous, upright suckers that may sprout from the (hopefully buried) graft union and prune them out as close to the trunk as possible.
Next on my calendar of bloom come the snowdrops (Galanthus spp. and cvs., Zone 3) and on their heels, several Iris reticulata cultivars (Zone 5), in shades of pale blue (‘Cantab’ and ‘Katharine Hodgkin’) through dark purple (‘J.S. Dijt’). I like to plant snowdrops and early irises together as their brave buds poke up through the retreating snow and flower simultaneously. Hybrid hellebores are the first herbaceous perennials to bloom, and like the early spring bulbs, often find themselves frosted and framed by late season snowfalls.
Next to burst into bloom are the early crocuses (Crocus chrysanthus and C. tommasinianus cvs., Zone 3), which I plant in layers above daffodil bulbs throughout my lawn in generous drifts. As the crocuses fade, the daffodils take over.
Almost coinciding with the early crocuses are luxurious carpets of glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa forbesii and C. luciliae, Zone 3) that cover the surface of my rose garden, and have obligingly begun to self-seed in my front lawn. Soon, the daffodils, hyacinths and early tulips will begin to flower along with other minor bulbs like hardy grape hyacinth (Muscari cvs., Zone 4) and Siberian squill (Scilla siberica, Zone 5).
The varied and rapid succession of our fleeting spring blooms can sometimes feel slightly overwhelming — horticulturists call it “the spring glut.” That said, it’s interesting to note that virtually all of our earliest flowers are native to Eurasia. This may not represent an ideal balance, but the bees are undeniably appreciative — we’ve all seen images of ravenous honeybees savaging early crocuses. Early-flowering native species such as hepatica, bloodroot and trillium won’t begin to bloom for several more weeks in my garden.
But regardless of what you grow across this vast and variable country, I’d love to hear which plants produce the first petals in your Canadian garden.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a weekly series of posts by Stephen Westcott-Gratton for Canada’s 150th birthday in summer 2017. New posts will be published every Wednesday.