Spring Blooming Shrubs That Aren’t Forsythia
I’m always ready to enjoy forsythia as long as it’s in someone else’s yard. The spring bloom is wonderfu, but for the other 50 weeks of the year, the plant is often a ragged mess. Even worse, it’s a ragged mess that spreads, and as the canes get thicker, it gradually stops blooming. The solution is to prune it from the inside out every year. This means crawling into the shrub and cutting out 1/4 to 1/3 of the oldest canes after the flowering is over, i.e., when it is getting warm enough for short sleeves. BUT, heavy, heat stroke-inducing clothing is required to avoid bloodshed. A head scarf or hat is recommended unless you don’t mind leaving chunks of your hair behind. Happily, there are other choices for jaw-dropping, early spring flower displays.
One alternative to forsythia is red buckeye, Aesculus pavia, which is a real gem. In part shade it usually forms an open, multi-stemmed shrub. In nature it is an understory plant, so while it can be grown in full sun and will flower better there, you have to remember that a full sun location stresses the plant. All those flowers are a ploy to spread its DNA around before all that sun kills it. In part shade with morning sun, you’ll get a graceful, more delicate looking plant that will reach perhaps 20′ tall and that will still provide a gorgeous display of flowers. It also requires moist soil and will quickly start to look sickly during droughts in full sun. Like other buckeyes, the nuts are toxic to humans.
The show starts in early spring when the leaves emerge heavily tinged with red that gradually fades as the season progresses. They are palmately compound (think hand-shaped with leaflets for the fingers), which gives them something of a tropical appearance. The flowers follow shortly after the leaves in colors ranging from a deep scarlet to a lighter salmon.
The flowers are small and tubular, held on panicles at the tips of the branches. In summer the fruits ripen and the nuts split their leathery brown husks. The nuts look like those of the standard buckeyes but are orangey brown rather than chestnut brown. The nuts are highly toxic, so plants should be sited away from children’s or dog’s play areas.
There’s a yellow-flowered variety, Aesculus pavia var. flavescens, which might be labelled as A.p.var. flavescens, so when shopping, make sure you know what you’re getting.
Fall is the only season where A. pavia disappoints. The fall color is drab at best. Fortunately, the plant has the good sense to drop its leaves early.
Purists will want to avoid A. pavia because while it is native to parts of Virginia, it does not usually occur in the Piedmont region. I don’t know why. Like virtually every other plant one encounters, A. pavia grows best in moist, well-drained soil. If you have clay soil, regularly incorporating compost, dead leaves, or mulch into the top 2″ or so will do wonders to improve soil structure and drainage. Ideally you would start this soil enrichment program a few years before planting, but I’ve never had that kind of patience. I mulch around my red buckeye, add some chopped up leaves in the fall, and let nature takes its course. Plants will grow in less than ideal conditions. With this plant, remember that keeping the soil moist, not waterlogged, is key.
A number of native perennials will complete your part-shade planting. Spring ephemerals — plants that bloom early before trees leaf out and then go dormant — will fit right in. Dodecatheon meadia, a/k/a shooting star, is a good choice. Its white flowers are held on long stems over the foliage, making them easy to see. The whole plant dies back by early summer. Tiarella wherryi is another possibility. The flowers bloom in early spring and are held well above the foliage, which is often attractively mottled and looks good all season long. For an easy ground cover, try hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula). This one is very hard to find, probably because it spreads very enthusiastically. If you have the space for it, or don’t mind the constant effort of keeping it in check, it makes a beautiful ground cover of delicate fronds 15-30″ tall. Dryopteris marginalis (marginal woodfern) is another possibility. Unlike D. punctilobula, it has a clumping growth habit and will not run rampant through your garden. The fronds, up to 2 1/2 ‘ tall, are bluish-green and arch gracefully. All these perennials, like A. pavia, do best in moist soil.
Red buckeye does have some drawbacks, but for gorgeous spring flowers in shades of red, plus glossy, green foliage all summer, followed by the leathery brown fruits breaking open to reveal orangey-brown nuts, a small grove of red buckeye is still worth planting. For me, it beats forsythia by a mile.
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (Dirr, 1998)
Native Plants of the Southeast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 460 Species for the Garden (Mellichamp, 2014 )
Native Trees for North American Landscapes (Sternberg &Wilson, 2004)