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The First Signs of Spring

Photo by Vicki’s Nature

Spring does not officially arrive on the calendar until March 20, but spring weather in the Deep South can make an appearance as early as mid-February, prompting many early blooming plants into full regalia—a welcome harbinger of warmer weather.

    What follows is a list and description of some of the early spring blooming plants well suited to Augusta landscapes and climate, with peak bloom times from mid-February to early March.

Flowering Quince

A long-time favorite among Augusta’s early blooming plants, flowering quince comes in a variety of cultivars, which can vary in size and bloom color including red, salmon, pink and white. Their normal blooming peak is mid-February, making them one of the first shrubs in Augusta to show their colors.

Flowering quince is easy to grow, draught tolerant and does best in partial shade to full sun. Periodic pruning improves blooming; old canes and suckers can be removed every year. Shrubs may be pruned back as far as six to 12 inches above the ground, but be sure to wait until after they bloom as flowers are borne on the previous year’s growth.

Flowering quince are largely problem free, but can develop fireblight and apple scab. Because of their thick twiggy growth, leaves and other trash can collect in the plants, giving them an untidy look.

Okame Cherry

Okame cherry is an excellent choice for anyone wishing to add cherry blossoms to their early spring landscape because it tolerates heat better than the more traditional Yoshino and Kwanzan varieties.

This hybrid tree, which typically hits its peak bloom time around February 21, grows quickly when young, forming an upright, vase-shaped tree that becomes more rounded with age, reaching 20 to 30 feet tall and wide. Rich pink flowers appear before the tree’s dark leaves, which provide yellow-orange color in the fall. Boasting shiny, reddish brown bark, Okame cherry grows in all soil types, requires full sun, while preferring filtered light during hot summer afternoons. Though it is drought tolerant, the tree benefits from supplemental irrigation during dry weather.

Japanese Magnolia

Japanese magnolia, also known as  saucer magnolia, is a small to medium deciduous tree that can reach 30 feet tall and 25 feet across, depending on the cultivar. Its large blooms range in size from four to 12 inches across, depending on the variety, with petals pointing upward like a torch. The average peak is February 23, featuring blooms in white, yellow, pink or purple in color, with pink to purple being the most common in Augusta. Flowers appear before the tree leafs out, which makes the display particularly striking.

Japanese magnolia prefers fertile, well-drained soil planted in either full sun or partial shade. It is a low maintenance tree that requires little pruning and is relatively pest free, though buds can be damaged by late frosts.

Daffodils

These old-fashioned favorites bloom year after year, sometimes even out lasting the gardens in which they were originally planted.

Daffodils (Narcissus) are the most successful of the popular spring bulbs for naturalizing in the South, their attractive flowers displaying showy yellow or white blooms with six petals and a trumpet shaped central corona. Leafless stems bear between one and 20 flowers, with a peak bloom time around February 24. They are suitable for planting between shrubs or in borders and are ideal for forcing blooms indoors. They also are wonderful additions to a woodland garden or large grove and are excellent for cutting.

For best flowering, plant in full sun or part shade or under deciduous trees, where bulbs will be dormant by the time the trees leaf out. Daffodils tolerate a wide range of soils but grow best in moderately fertile, well-drained soil that is moist during the growing season.

When the flowers fade leave the stems on the plant for at least six weeks or until they turn brown. This allows the energy from the leaves to build up the bulb for next year’s bloom. If you object to the appearance of yellowing leaves, try interplanting with perennials or summer annuals for camouflage, but be sure not to dig so deeply as to damage the bulbs.

Spring Starflower

One of the most magnificent displays of spring starflower may be seen during the last half of February on Milledge Road, between Walton Way and McDowell Street, where the right of way on both sides of the road is covered in a blanket of blooms.

Spring starflower is a small, approximately six-inch-tall perennial that grows from a bulb, with flat, grass-like leaves and fragrant, star-shaped blue or white flowers. It is a non-edible relative of the onion and its leaves give off an onion-like aroma when picked or crushed. It is easy to grow, widely adaptable to many soil types and can also be grown in pots or containers.

Spring starflower stands out brilliantly in February in dormant lawns and easements, bringing a much welcomed display of color to the late winter landscape.
Bulbs have an interesting growth cycle in that the foliage appears first followed by the flowers when temperatures are still low. After flowering, the foliage dies away in time for the hot weather of late spring, where it stays dormant for the rest of the year.  Like other spring flowering bulbs, plant during the fall in a large mass or grouped in a planting bed. But beware: Starflower can spread aggressively in a garden setting, which may require you to keep them in bounds.

Forsythia

A member of the olive family, forsythia is probably one of the easiest plants to grow. It is a fast growing deciduous shrub (one to two feet per year). Depending on the variety it varies in size from a compact one to two feet, with most reaching eight to 10 feet in height. Some varieties have an erect growth habit while others are weeping.

Forsythia flowers emerge before the leaves and will last two to three weeks unless killed by cold weather, which is rare since they tolerate temperatures well below freezing. Flowers are small, blooming in bell-like clusters, ranging in color from pale to deep yellow, with a peak bloom time of approximately March 1. Dark green leaves emerge shortly after they bloom.

Forsythia is easily propagated by starting from softwood cuttings, taken from new growth in the late spring or early summer. Take three- to four-inch cuttings from the tips of the branches and put them in moist sand. Layering is another method of propagation. Rough up a place on a branch close to the ground, then top with a brick or other heavy object to maintain contact with the ground until it roots. In fact lower branches often root themselves without any assistance. 

Redbud

Eastern redbud, or Judas tree, is a native tree with lavender-pink blooms that reach their peak around March 7.

It is a small deciduous tree, maturing at 20 to 30 feet in height and up to 35 feet in width, that grows with a divided trunk close to the ground. While it will grow in full sun, redbud, as an understory tree, prefers some shade. Though it tolerates dense shade, it produces more blooms when exposed to sun, preferably morning sun followed by afternoon shade for the best display.

Redbud flowers appear in clusters that nearly cover the bare branches of the tree and remain for two to three weeks. Although the flowers of the species are lavender pink, certain cultivars produce white, magenta-pink or rosy pink flowers. The heart-shaped leaves are reddish as they emerge, gradually turning dark green in summer and yellow in fall.

Redbud is best propagated in naturalized areas, where their flowers contrast  against evergreens or woodlands. Although it does well in most soil types, it prefers moist, well-drained sites, tolerating dry spells with supplemental irrigation.

Bradford Pear

Bradford pear is historically one of the most popular ornamental trees for residential and commercial landscapes, though their popularity as a commercial choice has declined due to the structural weakness of their narrow angled trunks when they reach maturity.

They remain popular, however, in residential landscapes because of their showy white blooms, dark green, glossy leaves and lollipop shape as well as their spectacular red fall color. Peak bloom is around March 8, when the city comes alive with their brilliant white blooms.

Bradford pear is a fast growing tree reaching 30 to 50 feet with a 20- to 30-foot spread. It grows best in full sun, but will endure part shade and tolerate most soil types and conditions, including occasional wet soils or drought. It also has a very high tolerance to pollution, which accounts for its popularity as a street tree. Before you plant a Bradford pear, keep in mind it should be pruned back or replaced within its 18- 20- year life span.

So if you’ve begun to despair the gloom of winter, wait a couple of weeks. There are plenty of early blooming shrubs and trees  ready to brighten your day and bridge the gap to the azaleas of Masters.

    Sid Mullis is an Augusta-Richmond County extension agent and a regular contributor to Augusta Magazine.                                                                        

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